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21Mar/12Off

Book Review: Neutrino, by Frank Close

You've probably heard the word "neutrino" in recent weeks, given that some of these ephemeral particles have recently been accused of breaking the speed limit.  Faster than light travel isn't supposed to be possible, but an experiment at CERN has called this into question.  (More than anything, really, it calls the result into question.  XKCD had a good take on it.)

I first heard of neutrinos while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.  In the episode, a neutrino pulse was going to be used to send a message.  Made sense to me, and I didn't ask what neutrinos were.  They sounded cool when Wil Wheaton mentioned them, and who's going to question Wesley Crusher?

I've mentioned in the past that I'm a particle physics fanboy, and I'm extremely inordinately proud that I can name all sixteen particles in the Standard Model.  (See if you can do it here: Standard Model quiz.  Hint: three of the leptons are neutrinos.)

Back in late 2010, I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Ian Sample's Massive, which hit some of the highlights of the development of the Standard Model but focused on the hunt for the Higgs Boson (still elusive).  I learned a bit about the W and Z Bosons, but I was left wanting some info on the leptons.  I knew, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, that the electron and neutrino where there, but I couldn't have told you much about the three "flavors" of neutrinos.

Enter Frank Close's Neutrino.  This is one of those cases in which I can't recall where I got the book recommendation.  I suspect I found it in the bibliography of another book, or even in the Teaching Company lecture series on particle physics.  (It's true, I can't get enough of this stuff.)  I wish I kept better track of this kind of thing, because I like to give credit when a real, actual person recommended a good book to me.

And Neutrino is definitely a good book.  The length is about right for the subject material, and it's readable enough that you don't get bogged down in it.  And while I didn't find myself really drawn into the narrative, I kept coming back to it even though I wandered through five other books while I had this one checked out.  (Granted, if I hadn't been able to renew it, I'd have finished it earlier.)

In terms of the science content, it's both top notch and pretty easy to understand for the reasonably well-versed reader.  If you've never seen Feynman diagrams, you might have a little more difficulty, but they're actually so self-explanatory that I'm not sure that's even true.  I feel like I learned a ton from this book, and that's a huge credit to Frank Close's skill in communication.  (I realized this while chatting about neutrinos with my dad last week.  His marbles are definitely still there.)

I guess it'd now be appropriate to wax just a bit verbose about neutrinos themselves, but I should mention that this can in no way be a substitute for reading the book.  You may be wondering why I'd choose to read about such an arcane subject.  But the fact is that neutrinos are one of sixteen elementary particles that make up ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING.   You've got the four Gauge bosons (the force-carrying particles, and I know that sounds strange), and the Fermions, made up of Quarks (six of them) and Leptons (six of them, half of which are neutrinos).

Neutrinos weren't even thought up until Wolfgang Pauli suggested that their existence could explain some missing energy and momentum in beta decay.  He just wasn't certain that anyone would ever be able to detect them.

It looked increasingly as if Pauli had invented a piece of nothing that was gone without a trace before you knew it, and even if you surrounded the site with walls made of lead a light year in thickness, the neutrinos would still have a good chance of escaping.  The neutrino seemed to be a theorist's bad dream, a beautiful idea destined forever to be unknowable to experiment.

Of course, the history of science has shown pretty reliably that once we know something exists, we'll find it.  The Standard Model of Particle Physics is exhibit A for this.  (Though that pesky Higgs Boson is still tricky, but it's still considered theoretical, so maybe we don't know it exists.)

Keep in mind how difficult it is to detect neutrinos, though.  For instance, when Supernova 1987a appeared, it showered the earth with neutrinos (technically, the showering started 170,000 years ago, but they only got here in 1987), numbering literally in the thousands of trillions.  Talking big numbers here.  Three neutrino detectors, and realize that these detectors are huuuuuge, actually detected them.  How many were detected?  Twenty-four.  The word you're looking for it elusive.

I skipped ahead a bit, of course, in relating the whole supernova neutrino detection, because the first detection of a neutrino (antineutrino actually) came in 1956.  The process of detection was refined over and over, but these things are still tough to nail down.  But the wild thing about the supernova story is that even with just two dozen detections, scientists were able to deduce the temperature of that nova and determine that it was a core-collapse event resulting in a neutron star (though the neutron star has remained ironically elusive).

A coworker saw the book on my desk and mentioned an article detailing how Fermilab scientists have recently sent and received a message using neutrinos.  Very cool.

So anyway, if you're at all geeky, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.  Again, it's not the most engaging particle physics book I've ever read (I'd give the nod to Massive), but it's a good read and communicates a lot of info with relative economy.

I actually don't have much else going in terms of reading.  I need to get back to reading Sweet Stuff: An American History of Sweeteners from Sugar to Sucralose, and then I'm totally reading Shogun.  Then I need to start reading any of the dozen free books I've gotten from the NOOK Store's Free Fridays.  (Actually, I have a few holdovers from last year that need my attention.)  Oh, and I picked up Moneyball from the library today.  So maybe I'll give that a look.

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