Scientists thought they might have just changed the face of physics, but they were wrong.
It was supposed to be an incredible discovery that could change human understanding of physics itself: a mysterious “bump” appeared at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole, which scientists believe at the time may have been a theoretical quantum particle known as the sterile neutrino. Alas, a new study indicates that scientists are 99 percent sure that this particle doesn’t exist after all, and the bump was a total coincidence, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison statement.
The study is based on two years of data at the observatory, which uses more than 5,000 light sensors packed in a cubic kilometer of ice to look for quantum particles, which essentially blast through matter as though it’s not even there, making it hard to observe. If scientists had found the sterile neutrino, it would have been the first ever discovery of a particle outside of our mathematical system, and could have totally changed the world of physics. For years, scientists thought they spotted it, but never got a full look at it.
Now, however, it appears they’ve hit a dead end.
Neutrinos are low-mass particles with a neutral charge that are emitted by the sun or exist as a remnant of the Big Bang, but they almost never interact with physical matter, passing through stars and black holes alike. There are three types of neutrinos: tau, electron, and muon, and the neutrino can switch between them. An oscillation discovered in the 90s couldn’t explain any of those types, so scientists created the term “sterile neutrinos” to explain neutrinos that only interact with gravity and nothing else.
But this study with the IceCube suggests that they never existed to begin with, and scientists will have to find another explanation for anomalies in physics.
“The appeal of a fourth kind of neutrino is that it would help bridge a gap in theory that predicts that some neutrinos from a beam of one type of neutrino emanating from a given source — be it a nuclear reactor, the sun or the atmosphere — would change from one kind of neutrino to another as they travel to a distant detector,” the statement reads. “It would also help solve other cosmological puzzles like the mismatch between matter and antimatter in the universe and the origin of dark matter. … Failing to detect the elusive particle, however, means physics remains in the dark about the origin of the tiny neutrino mass, or why they have mass in the first place.”