Solar Neutrino Problem

Why should we even care about neutrinos coming from the sun in the first place? In the 1960’s, the processes governing the interior of the sun were not well understood. There was a strong suspicion that the suns main energy source was the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium, but there was no direct evidence for this hypothesis. This is because the photons produced in fusion processes have a mean free path of about ​10^(-10) times the radius of the sun [1]. That is to say, it takes thousands of years for the light produced inside the core of the sun to escape and be detected at Earth. Photons then are not a good experimental observable to use if we want to understand the interior of the sun.

Additionally, these fusion processes also produce neutrinos, which are essentially non-interacting. Their non-interactive properties on one hand means that they can escape the interior of the sun unimpeded. Neutrinos thus give us a direct probe into the core of the sun without the wait that photons require. On the other hand though, these same non-interactive properties mean that detecting them is extremely difficult.

The undertaking to understand and measure these neutrinos was headed by John Bahcall, who headed the theoretical development, and Ray Davis Jr, who headed the experimental development.

In 1963, John Bahcall gave the first prediction of the neutrino flux coming from the sun [1]. Five years later in 1968, Ray Davis provided the first measurement of the solar neutrino flux [2]. They found that the predicted value was about 2.5 times higher than the measured value. This discrepancy is what became known as the solar neutrino problem.

This plot shows the discrepancy between the measured (blue) and predicted (not blue) amounts of electron neutrinos from various experiments. Blue corresponds to experimental measurements. The other colors correspond to the predicted amount of neutrinos from various sources. This figure was first presented in a 2004 paper by Bahcall [3].

Broadly speaking, there were three causes for this discrepancy:

  1. The prediction was incorrect. This was Bahcalls domain. At lowest order, this could involve some combination of two things. First, incorrect modeling of the sun resulting in inaccurate neutrino fluxes. Second, inaccurate calculation of the observable signal resulting from the neutrino interactions with the detector. Bahcall and his collaborators spent 20 years refining this work and much more but the discrepancy persisted.
  2. The experimental measurement was incorrect. During those same 20 years, until the late 1980’s, Ray Davis’ experiment was the only active neutrino experiment [4]. He continued to improve the experimental sensitivity, but the discrepancy still persisted.
  3. New Physics. In 1968, B. Pontecorv and V. Gribov formulated Neutrino oscillations as we know it today. They proposed that Neutrino flavor eigenstates are linear combinations of mass eigenstates [5]. At a very hand-wavy level, this ansatz sounds reasonable because a neutrino of one flavor at production can change its identity while it propagates from the Sun to the Earth. This is because it is the mass eigenstates that have well-defined time-evolution in quantum mechanics.

It turns out that Pontecorv and Gribov had found the resolution to the Solar Neutrino problem. It would take an additional 30 years for experimental verification of neutrino oscillations by Super-K in 1998 [6], and Sundbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in 1999 [7].


References:

[1] – Solar Neutrinos I: Theoretical This paper lays out the motivation for why we should care about solar neutrinos at all.

[2] – Search for Neutrinos from the Sun The first announcement of the measurement of the solar neutrino flux.

[3] – Solar Models and Solar Neutrinos This is a summary of the Solar Neutrino Problem as presented by Bahcall in 2004.

[4] – The Evolution of Neutrino Astronomy A recounting of their journey in neutrino oscillations written by Bahcall and Davis.

[5] – Neutrino Astronomy and Lepton Charge This is the paper that laid down the mathematical groundwork for neutrino oscillations.

[6] – Evidence for Oscillation of Atmospheric Neutrinos The Super-K collaboration reporting their findings in support of neutrino flavor oscillations.

[7] – The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory The SNO collaboration announcing that they had strong experimental evidence for neutrino oscillations.

Additional References

[A] – Formalism of Neturino Osciallations: An Introduction. An accessible introduction to neutrino oscillations, this is useful for anyone who wants a primer on this topic.

[B] – Neutrino Masses, Mixing, and Oscillations. This is the Particle Data Group (PDG) treatment of neutrino mixing and oscillation.

[C] – Solving the mystery of the missing neutrinos. Writen by John Bahcall, this is a comprehensive discussion of the “missing neutrino” or “solar neutrino” problem.

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Adam Green

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