LOG#126. Basic Neutrinology(XI).


Why is the case of massive neutrinos so relevant in contemporary physics? The full answer to this question would be very long. In fact, I am making this long thread about neutrinology in order you understand it a little bit. If neutrinos do have nonzero masses, then, due to the basic postulates of the quantum theory there will be in a “linear combination” or “mixing” among all the possible “states”. It also happens with quarks! This mixing will be observable even at macroscopic distances from the production point or source and it has very important practical consequences ONLY if the difference of the neutrino masses squared are very small. Mathematically speaking \Delta m_{ij}^2=m_i^2-m_j^2. Typically, \Delta m_{ij}\leq 1eV, but some “subtle details” can increae this upper bound up to the keV scale (in the case of sterile or right-handed neutrinos, undetected till now).

In the presence of neutrino masses, the so-called “weak eigenstates” are different to “mass eigenstates”. There is a “transformation” or “mixing”/”oscillation” between them. This phenomenon is described by some unitary matrix U. The idea is:

\mbox{Neutrino masses}\neq 0\longrightarrow \mbox{Transitions between neutrino mass eigenstates}

\mbox{Transitions between mass eigenstates}\longrightarrow \mbox{Neutrino mixing matrix}

\mbox{Neutrino mixing matrix}\longrightarrow \mbox{Neutrino oscillations}

If neutrinos can only be created and detected as a result of weak processes, at origin (or any arbitrary point) we have a weak eigenstate as a “rotation” of a mass eigenstate through the mixing matrix U:

\boxed{\vert \nu_w (0)\rangle =U\vert \nu_m (0)\rangle}

In this post, I am only to introduce the elementary theory of neutrino oscillations (NO or NOCILLA)/neutrino mixing (NOMIX) from a purely heuristic viewpoint. I will be using natural units with \hbar=c=1.

If we ignore the effects of the neutrino spin, after some time the system will evolve into the next state (recall we use elementary hamiltonian evolution from quantum mechanics here):

\vert \nu_m (t)\rangle=\exp \left( -iHt\right)\vert \nu_m (t)\rangle

and where H is the free hamiltonian of the system, i.e., in vacuum. It will be characterized by certain eigenvalues


and here, using special relativity, we write E_i^2=p_i^2+m_i^2

In most of the interesting cases (when E\sim MeV and m\sim eV), this relativistic dispersion relationship E=E(p,m) can be approximated by the next expression (it is the celebrated “ultra-relativistic” approximation):

p\simeq E

E\simeq p+\dfrac{m^2}{2p}

The effective neutrino hamiltonian can be written as



\vert \nu_m (t)\rangle=U\exp \left(-iH_{eff}t\right)U^+\vert \nu_w (0)\rangle=\exp \left(-iH_w^{eff}t\right)\vert \nu_m (0)\rangle

In this last equation, we write

H_w^{eff}\equiv \simeq \dfrac{M^2}{2E}


M\equiv U\mbox{diag}\left(\ldots,m_i^2,\ldots\right)U^+

We can perform this derivation in a more rigorous mathematical structure, but I am not going to do it here today. The resulting theory of neutrino mixing and neutrino oscillations (NO) has a beautiful corresponded with Neutrino OScillation EXperiments (NOSEX). These experiments are usually analyzed under the simplest assumption of two flavor mixing, or equivalently, under the perspective of neutrino oscillations with 2 simple neutrino species we can understand this process better. In such a case, the neutrino mixing matrix U becomes a simple 2-dimensional orthogonal rotation matrix depending on a single parameter \theta, the oscillation angle. If we repeat all the computations above in this simple case, we find that the probability that a weak interaction eigenstate neutrino \vert \nu_w\rangle has oscillated to other weak interaction eigenstate, say \vert \nu_w'\rangle when the neutrino travels some distance l=ct (remember we are supposing the neutrino are “almost” massless, so they move very close to the speed of light) is, taking \nu_m=\nu_e and \nu_m'=\nu_\mu,

(1) \boxed{P(\nu_e\longrightarrow \nu_\mu;l)=\sin^22\theta\sin^2\left(\dfrac{l}{l_{osc}}\right)}

This important formula describes the probability of NO in the 2-flavor case. It is a very important and useful result! There, we have defined the oscillation length as

\dfrac{1}{l_{osc}}\equiv\dfrac{\Delta m^2 l}{4E}

with \Delta m^2=m_1^2-m_2^2. In practical units, we have

(2) \boxed{\dfrac{1}{l_{osc}}=\dfrac{\Delta m^2 l}{4E}\simeq 1.27\dfrac{\Delta m^2(eV^2)l(m)}{E(MeV)}=1.27\dfrac{\Delta m^2(eV^2)l(km)}{E(GeV)}}

As you can observe, the probabilities depend on two factors: the mixing (oscillation) angle and the kinematical factor as a function of the traveled distance, the momentum of the neutrinos and the mass difference between the two species. If this mass difference were probed to be non-existent, the phenomenon of the neutrino oscillation would not be possible (it would have 0 probability!). To observe the neutrino oscillation, we have to make (observe) neutrinos in which some of this parameters are “big”, so the probability is significant. Interestingly, we can have different kind of neutrino oscillation experiments according to how large are these parameters. Namely:

Long baseline experiments (LBE). This class of NOSEX happen whenever you have an oscillation length of order l\sim 10^{2}km or bigger. Even, the neutrino oscillations of solar neutrinos (neutrinos emitted by the sun) and other astrophysical sources can also be understood as one of this. Neutrino beam experiments belong to this category as well.

-Short baseline experiments (SBE). This class of NOSEX happen whenever the distances than neutrino travel are lesser than hundreds of kilometers, perhaps some. Of course, the issue is conventional. Reactor experiments like KamLAND in Japan (Daya Bay in China, or RENO in South Korea) are experiments of this type.

Moreover, beyond reactor experiments, you also have neutrino beam experiments (T2K, NO\nu A, OPERA,…). Neutrino telescopes or detectors like IceCube are the next generation of neutrino “observers” after SuperKamiokande (SuperKamiokande will become HyperKamiokande in the near future, stay tuned!).

In summary, the phenomenon of neutrino mixing/neutrino oscillations/changing neutrino flavor transforms the neutrino in a very special particle under quantum and relativistic theories. Neutrinos are one of the best tools or probes to study matter since they only interact under weak interactions and gravity! Therefore, neutrinos are a powerful “laboratory” in which we can test or search for new physics (The fact that neutrinos are massive is, said this, a proof of new physics beyond the SM since the SM neutrinos are massless!). Indeed, the phenomenon is purely quantum and (special) relativist since the neutrinos are tiny particles and “very fast”. We have seen what are the main ideas behind this phenomenon and the main classes of neutrino experiments (long baseline and shortbaseline experiments). Moreover, we also have “passive” neutrino detectors like SuperKamiokande, IceCube and many others I will not quote here. They study the neutrino oscillations detecting atmospheric neutrinos (the result of cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere), solar neutrinos and other astrophysical sources of neutrinos (like supernovae!).  I have talked you about cosmic relic neutrinos too in the previous post. Aren’t you convinced that neutrinos are cool? They are “metamorphic”, they have flavor, they are everywhere!

See you in my next neutrinological post!

LOG#047. The Askaryan effect.

I discussed and reviewed the important Cherenkov effect and radiation in the previous post, here:


Today we are going to study a relatively new effect ( new experimentally speaking, because it was first detected when I was an undergraduate student, in 2000) but it is not so new from the theoretical aside (theoretically, it was predicted in 1962). This effect is closely related to the Cherenkov effect. It is named Askaryan effect or Askaryan radiation, see below after a brief recapitulation of the Cherenkov effect last post we are going to do in the next lines.

We do know that charged particles moving faster than light through the vacuum emit Cherenkov radiation. How can a particle move faster than light? The weak speed of a charged particle can exceed the speed of light. That is all. About some speculations about the so-called tachyonic gamma ray emissions, let me say that the existence of superluminal energy transfer has not been established so far, and one may ask why. There are two options:

1) The simplest solution is that superluminal quanta just do not exist, the vacuum speed of light being the definitive upper bound.

2) The second solution is that the interaction of superluminal radiation with matter is very small, the quotient of tachyonic and electric fine-structure constants being q_{tach}^2/e^2<10^{-11}. Therefore superluminal quanta and their substratum are hard to detect.

A related and very interesting question could be asked now related to the Cherenkov radiation we have studied here. What about neutral particles? Is there some analogue of Cherenkov radiation valid for chargeless or neutral particles? Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, conventional Cherenkov radiation of superluminal neutrinos does not arise or it is otherwise weakened. However neutrinos do carry electroweak charge and may emit certain Cherenkov-like radiation via weak interactions when traveling at superluminal speeds. The Askaryan effect/radiation is this Cherenkov-like effect for neutrinos, and we are going to enlighten your knowledge of this effect with this entry.

We are being bombarded by cosmic rays, and even more, we are being bombarded by neutrinos. Indeed, we expect that ultra-high energy (UHE) neutrinos or extreme ultra-high energy (EHE) neutrinos will hit us as too. When neutrinos interact wiht matter, they create some shower, specifically in dense media. Thus, we expect that the electrons and positrons which travel faster than the speed of light in these media or even in the air and they should emit (coherent) Cherenkov-like radiation.

Who was Gurgen Askaryan?

Let me quote what wikipedia say about him: Gurgen Askaryan (December 14, 1928-1997) was a prominent Soviet (armenian) physicist, famous for his discovery of the self-focusing of light, pioneering studies of light-matter interactions, and the discovery and investigation of the interaction of high-energy particles with condensed matter. He published more than 200 papers about different topics in high-energy physics.

Other interesting ideas by Askaryan: the bubble chamber (he discovered the idea independently to Glaser, but he did not published it so he did not win the Nobel Prize), laser self-focussing (one of the main contributions of Askaryan to non-linear optics was the self-focusing of light), and the acoustic UHECR detection proposal. Askaryan was the first to note that the outer few metres of the Moon’s surface, known as the regolith, would be a sufficiently transparent medium for detecting microwaves from the charge excess in particle showers. The radio transparency of the regolith has since been confirmed by the Apollo missions.

If you want to learn more about Askaryan ideas and his biography, you can read them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gurgen_Askaryan

What is the Askaryan effect?

The next figure is from the Askaryan radiation detected by the ANITA experiment:

The Askaryan effect is the phenomenon whereby a particle traveling faster than the phase velocity of light in a dense dielectric medium (such as salt, ice or the lunar regolith) produces a shower of secondary charged particles which contain a charge anisotropy  and thus emits a cone of coherent radiation in the radio or microwave  part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is similar, or more precisely it is based on the Cherenkov effect.

High energy processes such as Compton, Bhabha and Moller scattering along with positron annihilation  rapidly lead to about a 20%-30% negative charge asymmetry in the electron-photon part of a cascade. For instance, they can be initiated by UHE (higher than, e.g.,100 PeV) neutrinos.

1962, Askaryan first hypothesized this effect and suggested that it should lead to strong coherent radio and microwave Cherenkov emission for showers propagating within the dielectric. Since the dimensions of the clump of charged particles are small compared to the wavelength of the radio waves, the shower radiates coherent radio Cherenkov radiation whose power is proportional to the square of the net charge in the shower. The net charge in the shower is proportional to the primary energy so the radiated power scales quadratically with the shower energy, P_{RF}\propto E^2.

Indeed, these radio and coherent radiations are originated by the Cherenkov effect radiation. We do know that:

\dfrac{P_{CR}}{d\nu}\propto \nu d\nu

from the charged particle in a dense (refractive) medium experimenting Cherenkov radiation (CR). Every charge emittes a field \vert E\vert\propto \exp (i\mathbf{k}\cdot\mathbf{r}). Then, the power is proportional to E^2. In a dense medium:

R_{M}\sim 10cm

We have two different experimental and interesting cases:

A) The optical case, with \lambda <<R_M. Then, we expect random phases and P\propto N.

B) The microwave case, with \lambda>>R_M. In this situation, we expect coherent radiation/waves with P\propto N^2.

We can exploit this effect in large natural volumes transparent to radio (dry): pure ice, salt formations, lunar regolith,…The peak of this coherent radiation for sand is produced at a frequency around 5GHz, while the peak for ice is obtained around 2GHz.

The first experimental confirmation of the Askaryan effect detection were the next two experiments:

1) 2000 Saltzberg et.al., SLAC. They used as target silica sand. The paper is this one http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ex/0011001

2) 2002 Gorham et.al., SLAC. They used a synthetic salt target. The paper appeared in this place http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ex/0108027

Indeed, in 1965, Askaryan himself proposes ice and salt as possible target media. The reasons are easy to understand:
1st. They provide high densities and then it means a higher probability for neutrino interaction.
2nd. They have a high refractive index. Therefore, the Cerenkov emission becomes important.
3rd. Salt and ice are radio transparent, and of course, they can be supplied in large volumes available throughout the world.

The advantages of radio detection of UHE neutrinos provided by the Askaryan effect are very interesting:

1) Low attenuation: clear signals from large detection volumes.
2) We can observe distant and inclined events.
3) It has a high duty cycle: good statistics in less time.
4) I has a relative low cost: large areas covered.
5) It is available for neutrinos and/or any other chargeless/neutral particle!

Problems with this Askaryan effect detection are, though: radio interference, correlation with shower parameters (still unclear), and that it is limited only to particles with very large energies, about E>10^{17}eV.

In summary:

Askaryan effect = coherent Cerenkov radiation from a charge excess induced by (likely) neutral/chargeless particles like (specially highly energetic) neutrinos passing through a dense medium.

Why the Askaryan effect matters?

It matters since it allows for the detection of UHE neutrinos, and it is “universal” for chargeless/neutral particles like neutrinos, just in the same way that the Cherenkov effect is universal for charged particles. And tracking UHE neutrinos is important because they point out towards its source, and it is suspected they can help us to solve the riddle of the origin and composition of cosmic rays, the acceleration mechanism of cosmic radiation, the nuclear interactions of astrophysical objects, and tracking the highest energy emissions of the Universe we can observe at current time.

Is it real? Has it been detected? Yes, after 38 years, it has been detected. This effect was firstly demonstrated in sand (2000), rock salt (2004) and ice (2006), all done in a laboratory at SLAC and later it has been checked in several independent experiments around the world. Indeed, I remember to have heard about this effect during my darker years as undergraduate student. Fortunately or not, I forgot about it till now. In spite of the beauty of it!

Moreover, it has extra applications to neutrino detection using the Moon as target: GLUE (detectors are Goldstone RTs), NuMoon (Westerbork array; LOFAR), or RESUN (EVLA), or the LUNASKA project. Using ice as target, there has been other experiments checking the reality of this effect: FORTE (satellite observing Greenland ice sheet), RICE (co-deployed on AMANDA strings, viewing Antarctic ice), and the celebrated ANITA (balloon-borne over Antarctica, viewing Antarctic ice) experiment.

Furthermore, even some experiments have used the Moon (an it is likely some others will be built in the near future) as a neutrino detector using the Askaryan radiation (the analogue for neutral particles of the Cherenkov effect, don’t forget the spot!).

Askaryan effect and the mysterious cosmic rays.

Askaryan radiation is important because is one of the portals of the UHE neutrino observation coming from cosmic rays. The mysteries of cosmic rays continue today. We have detected indeed extremely energetic cosmic rays beyond the 10^{20}eV scale. Their origin is yet unsolved. We hope that tracking neutrinos we will discover the sources of those rays and their nature/composition. We don’t understand or know any mechanism being able to accelerate particles up to those incredible particles. At current time, IceCube has not detected UHE neutrinos, and it is a serious issue for curren theories and models. It is a challenge if we don’t observe enough UHE neutrinos as the Standard Model would predict. Would it mean that cosmic rays are exclusively composed by heavy nuclei or protons? Are we making a bad modelling of the spectrum of the sources and the nuclear models of stars as it happened before the neutrino oscillations at SuperKamiokande and Kamikande were detected -e.g.:SN1987A? Is there some kind of new Physics living at those scales and avoiding the GZK limit we would naively expect from our current theories?