Clara Moskowitz for Scientific American talks neutrinos, the headline dubbing them “the weirdest particles in the universe”. It’s an interview with James Riordon about a new book about its history co-written with Alan Chodos.

Which of the myriad of questions neutrinos pose intrigues you the most?

My favorite mystery is the determination of whether or not it’s its own antiparticle. To me, I think that’s the biggest and most dramatic question about neutrinos. That one touches on the really big question of the origin of the universe.

If a neutrino does turn out to be its own antiparticle, it could allow us to understand why the universe is made of mostly matter and not antimatter. We know that when the universe first began, it had to be a perfect balance of matter and antimatter. There’d be no matter left if all the matter and the antimatter in the universe had just annihilated. So an imbalance had to arrive somewhere, and neutrinos could be a clue as to the source of that imbalance.

My own relationship to neutrinos stems not from particular physics but from the Canadian progressive rock of the band Klaatu, who in the mid-1970s released the album 3:47 EST, whose eighth and final track was the song “Little Neutrino”.

(It’s also the album whose third track is titled, no lie, “Anus of Uranus”.)

The biggest thing I learned about neutrinos after looking them up (or, potentially, having a parent do so for me) confirmed the song’s final lyrics.

And now I’m passing through
The one who’s known as you
And yet you’ll never know I do

Being as I was at the time not yet even ten years old, I took this knowledge and did what came naturally: I invented a superhero and my mother made me a costume. From the cape, I assume Neutrino could fly, but his primary power is reflected in the symbol on his chest: he can pass through matter.


Their first idea to look for neutrinos was to take advantage of the nuclear weapons testing being done during the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, right?

If you look at the initial proposal, which was in itself audacious, they were going to put a detector in a shaft and drop it at the same time that a nuclear weapon went off about 40 meters away. It was an incredibly complicated system to develop. They had to decide where to dig the shaft. And they chose to put it 137 feet away from the tower where the weapon was going to go off. They chose that because the fine structure constant [a fundamental constant related to the strength of the electromagnetic force] is 1 ⁄ 137. But they knew that that was a little too frivolous to put in the description of the experiment for approval by Los Alamos, so they found the metric equivalent, which was roughly 40 meters. They turned it into an inside joke.

Decades after Neutrino’s creation, in 2010 the local, Portland food cart Grilled Cheese Grill solicited customers’ high school yearbook photos. Never one for hewing to the rules, and perhaps accidentally calling upon that cheeky spirit of the original neutrino researchers, I instead submitted my photo of Neutrino.

Rather than being rejected as not being responsive, it instead became a table all its own, inside their iconic double-decker bus. That location is long gone, although as of 2017 the table still existed, somewhere. I’d assume that by now it’s gone the way of the bus that served as its home.

As for Neutrino himself, it’s anyone’s guess. As the song said, “I am someone you’ll never know.”