Tens of billions of neutrinos are passing through every square centimeter of the Earth’s surface right now.
Neutrinos, ghostlike particles that flooded the universe just moments after the Big Bang, are born in the hearts of stars and other nuclear reactions. Untouched by electromagnetism and nearly as fast as light, neutrinos pass practically unhindered through everything from planets to people, only rarely responding to the weak nuclear force and the even weaker gravity. In fact, at any given moment, tens of billions of neutrinos are passing through every square centimeter of the Earth’s surface.
Brookhaven Lab’s first major contribution to neutrino research occurred in 1957, when Maurice Goldhaber performed an experiment that revealed neutrinos to be "left-handed." That is, a property of neutrinos known as "spin" is always oriented counter-clockwise to the direction of their linear momentum.
In 1962, a new type of neutrino, the muon neutrino, was discovered by scientists using the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron at Brookhaven. Leon Lederman, Mel Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger took home the 1988 Nobel Prize for this work, which established that there was more than one flavor of neutrino.
In the late 1960s, Brookhaven chemist Ray Davis discovered the solar neutrino problem. At the Homestake Mine in South Dakota, deep underground in order to shield the detector from cosmic rays, Davis was the first person able to directly detect the electron neutrinos being produced by the sun. But he only observed about one-third of the expected amount — this deficit would eventually become known as the solar neutrino problem (and the “missing” neutrinos would later turn out to be those that had changed to forms undetectable by Davis’ experiment while en route to Earth).
From the 1990s through the mid-2000s, Brookhaven's neutrino group played important roles in the GALLEX (Gallium Experiment) and SNO (Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) experiments in Italy and Canada, respectively. Brookhaven chemist Richard Hahn and his group were integral to the SNO experiment, which proved that neutrinos do oscillate between three forms — electron, muon, and tau.
Meanwhile, the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan, in which Brookhaven was represented by physicist and former Lab Director Maurice Goldhaber, had confirmed that neutrinos do indeed oscillate and have mass. Davis’s problem was solved: he had observed only the fraction of electron neutrinos from the sun that reached Earth without changing into muon or tau neutrinos. In 2002, his work was acknowledged with the Nobel Prize in Physics, shared with Masatoshi Koshiba of Japan and Riccardo Giacconi of the U.S.
Brookhaven then became involved in the ongoing MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) experiment based at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, which began taking data in 2005 and has since provided measurements of mixing angles and oscillation frequency that describe how muon and tau neutrino types oscillate between one form and another.
In addition, Brookhaven is integral to the Daya Bay Neutrino Project, which began taking data in 2011. This experiment aims to measure the final unknown mixing angle that describes how neutrinos oscillate — another chapter in Brookhaven’s long history of neutrino research over the last several decades.
The Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE) will use Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s existing accelerator complex to supply its neutrinos. Fermilab’s Main Injector Ring will produce an intense beam composed of densely packed neutrinos. which will travel 800 miles through the Earth’s mantle before striking its target at the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. Brookhaven Lab is strongly engaged in the planning, design, and future operation of LBNE, from fundamental neutrino science to detector construction.