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What’s a Neutrino?

A neutrino, an elementary particle, whose existence was first suggested by physicist Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, is electrically neutral and can pass through ordinary substances intact, rarely interacting with other particles. Neutrinos are believed to have a very small mass or possibly no mass whatsoever.

Neutrinos are one of the fundamental particles which make up the universe. They are also one of the least understood. Neutrinos are similar to the more familiar electron, with one crucial difference: neutrinos do not carry electric charge. Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they are not affected by the electromagnetic forces which act on electrons. Neutrinos are affected only by a “weak” sub-atomic force of much shorter range than electromagnetism, and are therefore able to pass through great distances in matter without being affected by it. If neutrinos have mass, they also interact gravitationally with other massive particles, but gravity is by far the weakest of the four known forces.

Three types of neutrinos are known; there is strong evidence that no additional neutrinos exist, unless their properties are unexpectedly very different from the known types. Each type of neutrino is related to a charged particle (which gives the corresponding neutrino its name). Hence, the “electron neutrino” is associated with the electron, and two other neutrinos are associated with heavier versions of the electron called the muon and the tau (elementary particles are frequently labelled with Greek letters, to confuse the layman).

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