NOVA chases a scientific phantom that may hold key to universe’s birth

NOVA probes the secret ingredient of the cosmos: swarms of invisible particles that fill every cubic inch of space, and just may explain how the universe was created. Trillions of ghostly neutrinos move through our bodies every second without us noticing a thing. Yet, without them, the sun wouldn’t shine and the elements that make up our world wouldn’t exist. NOVA explores the 70-year scientific struggle to understand the neutrino—a tale of mind-boggling disappearances—on The Ghost Particle, premiering Tuesday, February 21, 2006, at 8 pm ET on PBS.

Narrated by British actor Juliet Stevenson, The Ghost Particle is the story of a discovery that altered scientists’ understanding of what the universe is made of and how it was first formed. NOVA accompanies scientists into the laboratory, revealing astonishing footage of bizarre experiments. Computer animation brings to life the neutrino particle that is at once invisible and yet utterly essential to all life. NOVA first takes audiences back to 1930, when Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli wrote to his colleagues about the phenomenon of radioactive decay. The experts were puzzled by a missing bit of energy that could not be accounted for in their picture of how a radioactive atomic nucleus decays. Pauli suggested that a tiny, previously unknown particle had to exist to account for the missing energy. The problem with this theory, however, was that there was no hard evidence of the neutrinos existence.

It seemed to be an impossible investigation. Neutrinos have no electric charge – making them invisible to ordinary detecting equipment. Truly a poltergeist among particles, they can pass directly through solid matter without making so much as a ripple. Yet, every element vital to life, including carbon and oxygen, is made by a chain of nuclear reactions that would be impossible without neutrinos. They are an essential ingredient of the universe, and catching these neutrinos became the ultimate scientific quest. NOVA sits down with Professor John Bahcall and Nobel Prize winner Ray Davis, two men determined to solve of the biggest puzzles in particle physics. In the 1960s, they began their scientific adventure with a daring underground experiment that few believed could succeed.

Their goal was to find neutrinos produced by nuclear fusion within our shining sun. While Bahcall calculated the sun’s theoretical neutrino output, Davis built a neutrino trap nearly a mile underground in a gold mine in South Dakota, consisting of over 100,000 gallons of dry cleaning fluid. Their results were anything but expected, and sparked a raging debate that would take 40 years to resolve. Journeying from Davis’s South Dakota experiment site, to the Super-K detector in Japan, NOVA recounts the neutrino hunt with the world’s top physicists. To all the experts, Bahcall’s prediction method and Davis’s experiment design were both correct – yet the results did not match up! Most disturbing, the possible explanation for the discordance flew in the face of the Standard Model, an underlying theory explaining the basic building blocks of the universe and essential to understanding the Big Bang.

Construction of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Canada would finally settle the long debate by revealing the unlikeliest solution of all — that neutrinos have a bizarre ability to switch identity as they travel from the sun. With its shape-shifting behavior, the “Ghost Particle” turned out to be even stranger than anyone imagined.On an eye-popping tour, NOVA visits this extraordinary laboratory built two kilometers below ground, housing an acrylic sphere containing 1,000 tons of heavy water. The exact center of the SNO detector boasts the lowest level of radiation at any point in the solar system.Join NOVA for one of the great stories of science – a sprawling mystery culminating in what is arguably the most significant discovery of the new century. It is a discovery that challenges convention and continues to open a new world of physics–all due to this ghost particle, the enigmatic neutrino.

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