[The inside of the MiniBooNE neutrino detector, a perfect name for this time of year!]
The introductory narration to the 1964 episode of The Outer Limits “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” invokes the “strange world of subatomic particles,” including “anti-matter composed of inside-out material, shadow-matter which can penetrate 10 miles of lead shielding.” Ten miles of lead? What kind of witchery might this be?
Actually this is a vast understatement. These spooky particles called neutrinos can literally pass through walls of solid lead trillions of miles thick. In the classic paper “The ‘Neutrino’” Hans Bethe and Rudolph Peierls noted that a neutrino could pass through the earth “like a bullet through a bank of fog,” while John Updike’s poem “Cosmic Gall” compares their effortless travels through our planet to that of “dustmaids down a drafty hall.” While this means that neutrinos are completely safe, it also poses great difficulties to physicists trying to observe and measure them.
But there is another reason for the neutrino’s dubious reputation; they are produced in large numbers in the supernova explosions of massive stars, serving as celestial harbingers of doom that reach our massive neutrino detectors hours before the actual explosion of the star is visible in our telescopes. In fact, supernovae can be thought of as a “neutrino bombs.” Perhaps this is why in the Star Trek universe, Bajoran wormholes are said to give off elevated numbers of neutrinos whenever something passes through them.
Neutrinos are blamed for all kinds of mischief in popular culture. In the pilot episode of Rick and Morty mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his grandson Morty Smith on a late-night ride in his space cruiser. Rick has decided to give our planet a clean slate by wiping out the entire human species with a neutrino bomb, with the exception himself, Morty (the new Adam) and Morty’s friend Jessica from math class (Morty’s Eve). In Greg Bear’s novel Foundation and Chaos (based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series), the Three Laws of Robotics (which prevent robots from allowing humans – or themselves – to be harmed) are erased from a robot’s positronic brain after he is exposed to a neutrino storm. Neutrinos also trigger the end of the world in the apocalypse blockbuster 2012. Here an abnormally large storm of mutated neutrinos is unleashed from solar flares. In violation of the known laws of physics, these mutant neutrinos heat up the earth’s core and create the impossibly large tectonic shifts that are featured throughout the film. Finally, in the novel Flashforward the cause of the global blackout is tied to the neutrinos from Supernova 1987a interacting with the LHC. Neutrinos might not interact that often with matter, but science fiction seems to think that when they do, it’s very bad.