How Nature’s Elusive Lightweight Particles Have Been the Targets of Humor for 90 Years
Neutrinos arrived as the neat solution to a vexing problem in particle physics. In the radioactive process called beta decay, in which atomic nuclei transform themselves by emitting beta particles (energetic electrons), researchers discovered that a measure of energy and momentum (mass times velocity) was lost. On the other hand, total electric charge remained the same. In a fair swap, the negative charge carried away by the electrons was precisely balanced by an increase in positive charge for the nuclei. Like a stealthy thief in the night, some unseen neutral agent seemed to be snatching away some of the energy and momentum, while being careful not to disturb the net charge.
In 1930, to explain that discrepancy, in Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli proposed a new lightweight particle, which he originally called the “neutron.” It was later renamed the “neutrino,” once the massive neutral counterpart of the proton, also dubbed the “neutron,” was discovered. With virtually no rest mass and little ability to interact with other particles, except through what came to be known as the weak interaction, the force behind beta decay, the neutrino would be extremely hard to detect. That’s why, Pauli argued, it had hitherto escaped notice. As it turned out, the first detection of neutrinos would not be until 1956 in the Cowan-Reines experiment.
It didn’t help matters that Pauli framed his proposal rather comically. He sent a letter to researchers studying the decay process, addressed (in German) “Dear Radioactive Ladies and Gentlemen.” Thus, while his idea was considered seriously, it carried with it a measure of humor.
Two years later, in 1932,while lovers of literature commemorated the centenary of the death of Goethe, members of Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics decided, at an annual conference, to stage their own parody of Goethe’s most famous work, Faust. The year also coincided with the tenth anniversary of two of Bohr’s most famous accolades — the Nobel Prize and the “Bohr Fest” in Göttingen, Germany in which Bohr’s influential talks began to shape him into a kind of physics icon. It was also little more than a decade since the Institute was founded, thanks to the generosity of the Carlsberg brewing family.
In that play, Pauli was mocked as Mephistopheles, the devil. Paul Ehrenfest, the emotionally volatile statistical physicist who would eventually take his own life and the life of one of his sons, was portrayed as Faust. Finally, the neutrino itself stood in for Gretchen, the woman that, in the original play, Mephistopheles provoked Faust to seduce.
On October 7, 1935, Niels Bohr celebrated his 50th birthday. Rather than presenting him with a serious tome, his associates decided to put together a satirical publication, known as The Journal of Jocular Physics.
Once again, the neutrino got the comic treatment. A French poem “La Plainte du Neutrino” (The neutrino’s complaint) served as a parody of “Un secret” by French poet Felix Arvers. The satirical version compared the neutrino’s elusiveness to a secret unrequited love.
By the second half of the twentieth century, once neutrinos were actually discovered, the jokes died down a bit. Much of the humor during that period centered on the fact that trillions of neutrinos pass through our bodies each second with virtually no chance of affecting us. One joke, developed by the neutrino’s discoverers Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines of Los Alamos, was to present to someone a seemingly empty cardboard box that is labelled something like “at any moment this box is guaranteed to contain at least 100 neutrinos.”
Another type of joke centers on the fact that neutrinos can “oscillate,” meaning cycle through a blend of types. See, for example, the Fermilab News cartoon at the start of this blog.
However in 2011, when the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) team, based at a detector in Gran Sasso, Italy, offered the bold claim of faster-than-light neutrinos, the resulting cascade of jokes flooded the world of social media. The team announced that it had measured streams of neutrinos emanating from the CERN accelerator laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, about 450 miles away, to be arriving approximately 60 billionths of a second earlier than light speed would allow. “This result comes as a complete surprise,” announced OPERA spokesperson, Antonio Ereditato, in a press release. “After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement.” (Antonio Ereditato, press release, OPERA experiment, September 23, 2011)
Faster-than-light neutrinos jokes became the meme of the moment. As the Los Angeles Times reported within days after the announcement, “Neutrino jokes hit Twittersphere faster than the speed of light.”
Satirical songwriters soon joined in on the craze, including an Irish band, Corrigan Brothers and Pete Creighton, with their “Neutrino Song.” “Was old Albert wrong?” they asked in verse. “That fabulous theory of relativity is being debunked…”
If Einstein’s theory had been shattered, theoretical physics would have faced a unexpected challenge. Perhaps it would have taken a “new Einstein” to pick up the pieces and assemble a more durable theory. But as has often been the case, reports of the demise of relativity were greatly exaggerated.
In June 2012, CERN issued a press release stating “the original OPERA measurement can be attributed to a faulty element of the experiment’s fibre optic timing system.” Neutrino velocities, as confirmed by OPERA and three other experiments, do not exceed the speed of light. That is “what we all expected deep down,” stated CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. (Sergio Bertolucci, press release, CERN, June 8, 2012)
With neutrinos boringly following the known laws of physics, humor about such particles has reached another lull. But never fear. Pauli’s poltergeist particles preserve a propensity for periodically popping into parody. It just might take one more anonymous run, and a fresh crop of neutrino jokes might fill social media once again.
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.