Neutrino Hunters The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

Ray Jayawardhana

Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux




256 Pages


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Winner of the Canadian Science Writers' Association Book Award An Advancing Science, Serving Society Public Engagement with Science Award Finalist  The incredibly small bits of matter we call neutrinos may hold the secret to why antimatter is so rare, how mighty stars explode as supernovae, what the universe was like just seconds after the big bang, and even the inner workings of our own planet.

For more than eighty years, adventurous minds from around the world have been chasing these ghostly particles, trillions of which pass through our bodies every second. Extremely elusive and difficult to pin down, neutrinos are not unlike the brilliant and eccentric scientists who doggedly pursue them.

In Neutrino Hunters, the renowned astrophysicist and award-winning writer Ray Jayawardhana takes us on a thrilling journey into the shadowy world of neutrinos and the colorful lives of those who seek them. Demystifying particle science along the way, Jayawardhana tells a detective story with cosmic implications—interweaving tales of the sharp-witted theorist Wolfgang Pauli; the troubled genius Ettore Majorana; the harbinger of the atomic age Enrico Fermi; the notorious Cold War defector Bruno Pontecorvo; and the dynamic dream team of Marie and Pierre Curie. Then there are the scientists of today who have caught the neutrino bug, and whose experimental investigations stretch from a working nickel mine in Ontario to a long tunnel through a mountain in central Italy, from a nuclear waste site in New Mexico to a bay on the South China Sea, and from Olympic-size pools deep underground to a gigantic cube of Antarctic ice—called, naturally, IceCube.

As Jayawardhana recounts a captivating saga of scientific discovery and celebrates a glorious human quest, he reveals why the next decade of neutrino hunting will redefine how we think about physics, cosmology, and our lives on Earth.


Praise for Neutrino Hunters

“Jayawardhana’s storytelling skill shines.”—Ernie Mastroianni, Discover Magazine

“Everything about neutrinos is fascinating. The various dramas associated with their discovery, our efforts to understand their very weird properties, and what they have taught us about fundamental physics are remarkable. Jayawardhana is the perfect person to convey these exciting stories, and Neutrino Hunters should be of broad interest.”—Lawrence M. Krauss, theoretical physicist and bestselling author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing

Neutrino Hunters is a riveting mix of science and biography, providing both entertainment and painlessly assimilated information. Jayawardhana makes clear that the story is just beginning, as neutrino astronomy is starting to provide new insights into the nature of the universe. Fascinating.”—John Gribbin, author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat

“With his typical blend of scientific insight and storytelling verve, Jayawardhana vividly, colorfully, and humorously captures the often offbeat characters who, over the past century, have pursued one of the most elusive—and significant—mysteries in the history of physics.”—Richard Panek, author of The 4% Universe

“From the Earth’s core to exploding stars, vanishing scientists, and the very essence of matter in the universe, Neutrino Hunters is a wild and immensely satisfying ride.”—Caleb Scharf, author of Gravity’s Engines

“Move over, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene! Ray Jayawardhana is the new dean of popular science. Neutrino Hunters is a wonderful read from start to finish.”—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award–winning author of Red Planet Blues

“This is science from the front lines. But it’s not just science: Neutrino Hunters also illuminates the thinkers and tinkerers who have made the quest for the neutrino their life’s work. We are lucky to have Jayawardhana—a first-rate storyteller who also knows the physics inside out—to guide us through this remarkable story.”—Dan Falk, author of In Search of Time

Neutrino Hunters is an excellent overview of a vibrant and vital area of research.” —Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude

“Jayawardhana tells a whopping good ghost story. In recent years, researchers have discovered that neutrino particles, the poltergeists of physics that go right through us with nary a bump, promise to reveal much about the Earth, stars, and our cosmic origins. Beautifully written, Neutrino Hunters paints a vivid portrait of this new astronomy for the twenty-first century and the fascinating scientists who put it into place.”—Marcia Bartusiak, author of The Day We Found the Universe

Neutrino Hunters is a fascinating, comprehensive look at the monumental efforts to detect the least understood particle known to physics. While the Higgs boson might be more famous, Jayawardhana reveals that neutrinos are far more mysterious, and that they may hold the key to the next breakthroughs in the field.”—Chad Orzel, author of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

“[Neutrino Hunters] includes a fascinating account of the disputes between the theorists and experimentalists in this epic scientific adventure story.”—Kirkus Reviews

“A tale of revolutionary science and of the colorful personalities of those who did it—must-reading for armchair physicists!”—Booklist

“With clarity and wry humor, Jayawardhana relates how Wolfgang Pauli ‘invented’ the neutrino to explain where missing energy went during beta decay . . . From deep underground in South Dakota’s Homestake Gold Mine to Antarctica’s IceCube, currently the world’s largest neutrino detector, Jayawardhana vividly illuminates both the particle that has ‘baffled and surprised’ scientists, and the researchers who hunt it.”—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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There he stood, wearing a red parka, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, on blindingly white snow against a clear blue sky, 9,000 feet above sea level, with the temperature hovering at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. “We are here today to celebrate one of the most outstanding achievements of mankind,” he bellowed out, as the sounds of flags flapping in the wind and snow crushing under a walker’s boots threatened to muffle his voice. His brief remarks over, with a couple of hundred workers, guests, and tourists watching, Stoltenberg
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  • Ray Jayawardhana

  • Ray Jayawardhana is a professor and the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, he has coauthored more than one hundred scientific papers. His discoveries have made headlines worldwide and led to numerous accolades such as the Steacie Prize, the McLean Award, and a Radcliffe Fellowship. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American, and more. He is the author of Strange New Worlds. Jayawardhana lives in Toronto.

  • Ray Jayawardhana © J.R. Bernstein
    Ray Jayawardhana