Supernova neutrinos could break physics – if we can make sense of them

The halo from SN1987a, the last nearby supernova

Science History Images/Alamy

ON A clear night, watching the stars in an inky sky, one word comes to mind: calm. The starlight seems to speak of stability and permanence. And yet, hidden from the naked eye, the wider cosmos is a place of relentless upheaval. Every 10 seconds or so, somewhere in the universe, a star reaches the end of its life and caves in on itself before exploding with cataclysmic ferocity.

For all their ubiquity, we still don’t fully understand what triggers core-collapse supernovae. But we do suspect that elusive particles called neutrinos play a key role, and that observing them in the unimaginably extreme conditions inside a supernova could betray the exotic matter and forces that would lead us to a deeper theory of particle physics. “There’s just so much information in supernova neutrinos,” says Joachim Kopp, a theorist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.

The problem is that supernovae close enough to Earth to spill their secrets are rare. The most recent one came in 1987, and the 25 neutrinos we were able to capture from the blast continue to mystify researchers to this day – which explains why so many are so excited by the new generation of neutrino detectors currently being built around the world.

The idea is that when the next nearby star goes supernova, we will be ready. But it is a race against time because that is already long overdue. “You can imagine how exciting…

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