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Particles and interactions

Evidence for sterile neutrinos claimed by Fermilab experiment

04 Jun 2018
MiniBooNE photomultipliers
Physics boon: has MiniBooNE found evidence for sterile neutrinos? (Courtesy: Reidar Hahn/Fermilab)

Physicists working on the Mini Booster Neutrino Experiment (MiniBooNE) at Fermilab in the US have released new results that they argue provide strong evidence for the existence of a new type of particle known as a sterile neutrino. The researchers say that their data are fully consistent with a previous hint of sterile neutrinos that emerged more than 20 years ago from the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, although other groups have failed to reproduce the findings.

Sterile neutrinos, if they exist, would be even more elusive than standard neutrinos, which themselves are chargeless and nearly massless. The Standard Model of particle physics tells us that neutrinos come in three flavours – electron, muon and tau – and that they “oscillate” from one flavour to another as they travel through space. But some extensions of the Standard Model predict that these known neutrinos can also oscillate into and out of sterile neutrinos, which might not interact at all with any other ordinary matter.

MiniBooNE monitors the tiny flashes of light that are produced occasionally when electron neutrinos interact with atomic nuclei in about 800 tonnes of pure mineral oil contained in a spherical tank located underground on the Fermilab site near Chicago. Those neutrinos are generated after protons from the lab’s Booster accelerator are fired into a beryllium target to create muon neutrinos, which then oscillate to electron neutrinos as they travel several hundred metres through the Earth to the detector.

Statistically speaking

In a preprint uploaded recently to the arXiv server, the MiniBooNE collaboration reports having detected far more electron neutrinos than would be expected from purely Standard Model oscillations after collecting data for 15 years. According to collaboration member William Louis of Los Alamos, the measurement suggests that some of the muon neutrinos oscillate into sterile neutrinos that in turn transform into electron neutrinos. That interpretation, he says, is bolstered by the fact that the variation of electron-neutrino excess with neutrino energy – a parameter of neutrino oscillations – seen in MiniBooNE matches that recorded at LSND. He and his colleagues conclude that the combined excess from the two experiments has a statistical significance of 6.1σ, which is well above the 5σ that is normally considered a discovery in particle physics.

Although MiniBooNE is quite similar to LSND – in using mineral oil to observe neutrinos from an accelerator-based source – and indeed has inherited personnel from the earlier project, its researchers are nevertheless confident that there are no common sources of error. “We think that is very unlikely,” says Louis. “The two experiments have very different energies and backgrounds, and therefore very different possible systematic errors”.

Not a done deal

However, the existence of sterile neutrinos is not yet a done deal. While some groups operating experiments that exploit neutrinos from nuclear reactors or radioactive sources have also gathered (somewhat weaker) evidence for the hypothetical particles, other groups have looked and found nothing. These include the IceCube collaboration, which operates a detector at the South Pole, and the now completed Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) at Fermilab.

Indeed, researchers outside the MiniBooNE collaboration remain unconvinced by the latest results. Luca Stanco of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Padua takes issue with the way the group combined its statistics with those of LSND. He says that doing so assumes the two measurements correspond to the same physical effect, which, he argues, isn’t necessarily the case. “I am quite disappointed by the way MiniBooNE chose to report its new results,” he says.

Likewise, Werner Rodejohann of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, says a number of question marks hang over MiniBooNE’s experimental data, such as exactly how many electron neutrinos are generated following the proton collisions. He also says that sterile neutrinos are typically predicted to be many orders of magnitude heavier than the ones claimed by MiniBooNE. “One can make them light,” he says, “but that needs theory voodoo that seems somewhat unnatural.”

To try and settle the issue, numerous other dedicated experiments are either operating or under development. For their part, Louis and colleagues are currently setting up another three detectors at Fermilab – one of which is now running – to monitor the neutrino flux closer to the beryllium target than MiniBooNE and also further away. The idea, he says, is to show beyond doubt that the electron neutrino excess really is due to oscillations, given that the measured oscillation rate should vary with distance from the source as well as with energy. Results are expected “over the next three to five years,” he says.

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