Children trick-or-treat for sterile neutrinos

Children trick-or-treat for sterile neutrinos. Initially perplexed, they eventually warmed up to hunt for the elusive. Photo: <a href="">Tanya Dawn</a>

Children trick-or-treat for sterile neutrinos. Initially perplexed, they eventually warmed up to hunt for the elusive. Photo: Tanya Dawn

Countries across the globe have built big detectors to search for that most minute of particles, the neutrino. Now Fermilab scientist Peter Wilson has thought of an innovative, low-budget means for the next-generation neutrino search: children.

“It all came together one night about a month ago while enjoying a spicy black bean burger and a frosty cold beverage at the Frontier Pub®,” Wilson said. “Far too often for it not to be true, the media describe neutrinos as ghostly particles. They’re perfect for Halloween. Children love to dress up for Halloween and then go out in the neighborhood and search for treats. They can also be utterly stubborn and implacable when they really want something, so all we had to do was be sure they wanted to find sterile neutrinos. That was easy — bribe them with candy.

“We invited Fermilab employees and visitors with small children to come to Wilson Hall Saturday evening, with the kids in their Halloween costumes and carrying their candy buckets to collect sterile neutrinos. We gathered the children into a circle and told them about sterile neutrinos and that they should bring sterile neutrinos back to us in their buckets. They looked at us kind of puzzled until we told them they’d get some candy for each sterile neutrino they brought back. Once they heard that, they took off like they were propelled by a superconducting radio-frequency cavity!

“Those kids brought back all sorts of stuff they’d dug out of long-forgotten recesses of Wilson Hall. We had to keep telling them ‘No, that’s not a neutrino, and it’s definitely not sterile. In fact, it might be dangerous or infectious.’ So we had to call in the janitorial staff, who mobilized a local cleanup team. One kid even brought back a bag with ‘R. Wilson’ written on it. The contents might have been half a sandwich sometime long ago. (By the by, c’mon folks, clean out those refrigerators!) After about 10 minutes, though, another quality of a child that we entirely forgot about surfaced. They’re impatient. They’d just stop in their tracks and start crying, and some resorted to tantrums.

“Then one of the kids came up, held out her bucket, and said ‘I’ve got a million of them in here.’ I said, ‘Prove to me they’re in there.’ She looked me in the eye and said ‘Prove to me they aren’t.’ She had me there. So I gave her a big bag of cotton candy. Figured she was set up with that response by a smart-aleck parent, and sending her home with gooey hands and all jacked up on sugar was our best revenge. Other kids repeated her lines and soon we were completely out of candy. So while we didn’t find any sterile neutrinos, I think everyone had a good time. Well, except for the cleanup team.”