Title : “Suggestive evidence for Coherent Elastic Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering from reactor antineutrinos”
Authors : J. Colaresi et al.
Neutrinos are the ghosts of particle physics, passing right through matter as if it isn’t there. Their head-on collisions with atoms are so rare that it takes a many-ton detector to see them. Far more often though, a neutrino gives a tiny push to an atom’s nucleus, like a golf ball glancing off a bowling ball. Even a small detector can catch these frequent scrapes, but only if it can pick up the bowling ball’s tiny budge. Today’s paper may mark the opening of a new window into these events, called “coherent neutrino-nucleus scattering” or CEvNS (pronounced “sevens”), which can teach us about neutrinos, their astrophysical origins, and the even more elusive dark matter.
A scrape with a ghost in a sea of noise
CEvNS was first measured in 2017 by COHERENT at a neutron beam facility, but much more data is needed to fully understand it. Nuclear reactors produce far more neutrinos than other sources, but they are even less energetic and thus harder to detect. To find these abundant but evasive events, the authors used a detector called “NCC-1701” that can count the electrons knocked off a germanium atom when a neutrino from the reactor collides with its nucleus.
Unfortunately, a nuclear reactor produces lots of neutrons as well, which glance off atoms just like neutrinos, and the detector was further swamped with electronic noise due to its hot, buzzing surroundings. To pick out CEvNS from this mess, the researchers found creative ways to reduce these effects: shielding the detector from as many neutrons as possible, cooling its vicinity, and controlling for environmental variables.
An intriguing bump with a promising future
After all this work, a clear bump was visible in the data when the reactor was running, and disappeared when it was turned off. You can see this difference in the top and bottom of Fig. 1, which shows the number of events observed after subtracting the backgrounds, as a function of the energy they deposited (number of electrons released from germanium atoms).
But measuring CEvNS is such a new enterprise that it isn’t clear exactly what to look for – the number of electrons a neutrino tends to knock off a germanium atom is still uncertain. This can be seen in the top of Fig. 1, where the model used for this number changes the amount of CEvNS expected (solid vs dashed line).
Still, for a range of these models, statistical tests “moderately” to “very strongly” confirmed CEvNS as the likely explanation of the excess events. When more data accumulates and the bump becomes clearer, NCC-1701 can determine which model is correct. CEvNS may then become the easiest way to measure neutrinos, since detectors only need to be a couple feet in size.
Understanding CEvNS is also critical for finding dark matter. With dark matter detectors coming up empty, it now seems that dark matter hits atoms even less often than neutrinos, making CEvNS an important background for dark matter hunters. If experiments like NCC-1701 can determine CEvNS models, then dark matter searches can stop worrying about this rain of neutrinos from the sky and instead start looking for them. These “astrophysical” neutrinos are cosmic messengers carrying information about their origins, from our sun’s core to supernovae.
This suggestive bump in the data of a tiny detector near the roiling furnace of a nuclear reactor shows just how far neutrino physics has come – the sneakiest ghosts in the Standard Model can now be captured with a germanium crystal that could fit in your palm. Who knows what this new window will reveal?
“Ever-Elusive Neutrinos Spotted Bouncing Off Nuclei for the First Time” – Scientific American article from the first COHERENT detection in 2017
“Hitting the neutrino floor” – Symmetry Magazine article on the importance of CEvNS to dark matter searches
“Local nuclear reactor helps scientists catch and study neutrinos” – Phys.org story about these results