Stalking a Ghost Particle: How Frederick Reines '39 M.S. '41 Helped Prove the Big Bang
The Big Bang theory dates back to the late 1920s, when a Belgian physicist floated the notion that the universe might have its origins in a single, powerful point of energy that has been continuously expanding ever since a massive, cataclysmic event.
The theory hinges, technically, on a number of calculations and elements. Most were gradually discovered or proven — except for one key particle that long eluded scientists' best efforts. Neutrinos have no charge, almost zero mass, and only very rarely interact with objects at all. They're incredibly difficult to detect.
But they met their match in Frederick Reines '39 M.S. '41. And Reines would eventually receive a Nobel Prize for his research.
Raised in New York and New Jersey, "Fred" exhibited a remarkable aptitude for both science and music from a young age. As a boy, he built radios from scratch and was a (literal) Boy Scout. At Stevens, he sang in chorales, competed in gymnastics, trained with a vocal coach from the Metropolitan Opera and completed both a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in physics.
After doctoral studies in nuclear fission at New York University (he continued to sing in operas in the city during his free time, naturally), Reines joined the famed Los Alamos government laboratory in New Mexico, hub of America's nuclear weapons research. It was there, in 1956, with fellow scientist Clyde Cowan, that Reines came up with a plan to observe large-scale nuclear reactions for signs of the elusive neutrino.
"Not very sensible, but we were attracted by the challenge," he would recall years later.
Working at a government-operated nuclear reactor in South Carolina, the duo placed a set of heavy tanks directly beneath the reactor, some filled with cesium-laced water and some filled with a compound that would illuminate whenever electrical charges passed through it. The setup weighed some ten tons.
The pair powered up the nuclear plant, observed the tanks; switched the plant off; and looked again. Repeatedly. Laboriously.
A pair of flashes — the tracks of nuclear reactions — occurring a few microseconds or so apart when the plant was powered up, they knew, would signal that stray neutrinos had barged into the situation and delayed the reaction just enough to cause the secondary flashes.
They waited. They watched. Over and over. And in the end, they detected what they hoped they would: the signal double flash.
Nearly 40 years after that discovery, Reines received the Nobel Prize, in 1995; Cowan, who had long since passed away, was co-awarded the prize posthumously. Their discovery would fuel a chain of theories and discoveries in particle physics and astrophysics that continue to this day.
"Why did we want to detect the free neutrino?" asked Reines in his Nobel acceptance speech, answering his own question bluntly: "Because everybody said you couldn't do it."