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This Shape-Shifter Could Tell Us Why Matter Exists

Neutrino physics is full of unusual characters. There was Ettore Majorana, who disappeared in 1938 without a trace, taking his savings with him. No record of him has ever been found, though there have been numerous disputed sightings of him throughout the years.

Then there was Bruno Pontecorvo. Suspected of slipping nuclear secrets out of England, he vanished while on vacation in Italy in 1950 and reappeared five years later singing the praises of his new homeland: the Soviet Union.

Strangest of all, though, is the neutrino itself. It is electrically neutral, making it invisible to particle detectors, and bizarrely lightweight, at most 0.0004 percent the weight of the next-lightest particle, the electron. Although it is the most numerous massive particle in the universe, it is so slippery that it can pass through a light year of lead as if it wasn’t there. And then there is the matter of the shape-shifting.

Neutrinos come in three flavors: electron, muon, and tau, each named for the charged particle with which it is associated. But the flavors are not pure essences—each is made up of a different combination (or superposition) of three ingredients, or mass states.

How they get mass is a physicist’s version of the Zen koan pondering the sound of one hand clapping.

These mass states behave not as simple dumbbells of differing weights, but as waves of differing lengths. Because the waves do not line up with each other perfectly, at different points the height of one mass state will vary with respect to that of the other two. That means that sometimes the combination of mass states will most resemble the recipe for an electron neutrino, while at other times

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