Posted by Jason Polak on 16. January 2017 · Write a comment · Categories: exposition · Tags:

A neutrino is a ultra low mass chargless subatomic particle that is produced in a variety of nuclear reactions such as beta decay. Neutrinos are incredibly abundant, but because of their size and lack of charge, they pass through almost anything and are extremely difficult to detect. Ray Jayawardhana’s book Neutrino Hunters is a fascinating glimpse into the great strides made by physicists to actually detect and understand these mysterious particles.

Neutrino Hunters progresses historically from Wolfgang Pauli’s hypothesising the existence of neutrino to its experimental confirmation and analysis as a central player in the workings of the universe. Several colourful and intriguing portraits of physicists appear along with the incredible experiments that were devised to understand the neutrino. Particularly fascinating were the early neutrino detectors, filled with hundreds of liters of dry-cleaning fluid that had to be placed deep underground to avoid interference. As time goes on, the detectors become more complex and even more ingenious, though I’ll leave out specifics so as not to spoil the book. Suffice it to say, some of the feats accomplished with complicated apparatus are truly astounding.

After the story of the then-state of the art is told, the author explains some future experiments and unresolved speculations, such as the possibility of a fourth neutrino flavour and neutrino communication.

The author manages to keep an excellent balance between precise scientific explanation for the nonspecialist and lively historical recounting. As someone who usually is terribly bored with history, I was never bored reading this book. This is not surprising, as the author is a physicist himself and does not fall into the habit (usually possessed by journalists without scientific training) of including vast amounts of irrelevant detail.

Overall, Jayawardhana is precise without ever being overly technical, and Neutrino Hunters should be easily readable by anyone with a basic knowledge of the atom and a yearning to glimpse into the subatomic world and the origins of the universe. Highly recommended.