Room in the Universe for Ancient Beliefs and Modern Physics

Room in the Universe for Ancient Beliefs and Modern Physics


HIDA VILLAGE, Japan -- Everywhere in this restored 17th-century village, old wayside shrines remind visitors of the belief that Buddha could assume several manifestations, each representing one of the deep tenets of Buddhist teaching.

Barely a mile away from the old wood houses of this village is the modern provincial town of Takayama, where trailblazing physics is coming to light at an international conference on neutrino particles.

Despite the contrast between the carefully tended icons of Hida (which bespeak ancient religious mysticism) and the research that has been unveiled nearby during the past week, many Asian scientists view the two worlds as complimentary rather than conflicting.

"We say that Buddhist tradition makes it easier for us to grasp the dualities and transformations of particle physics," said one of the Japanese scientists here, who spoke on condition he not be identified.

"For example, the duality of particles and waves manifested in all the ingredients of matter has long been known, but although everyone accepts this duality intellectually, the idea may be hard to feel in your heart, unless you are Asian," he said.

The announcement last Friday that a coalition of Japanese and American scientists had found strong evidence that neutrinos undergo transformation from one type to another (and therefore have mass) also evokes comparisons with Buddhist traditions of dualism.

Neutrino particles have been called "ghostly" because of their extraordinary ability to evade entrapment by the electromagnetic and "strong" nuclear forces, which affect most other particles. By contrast, a neutrino can easily zip through the entire earth without hindrance, although once in a great while a neutrino may bang into an electron orbiting an atom and send the electron careening away (where a man-made detector may spot it).

It has been known for a decade that neutrinos come in three families. Physicist generally believed that each type had no mass, did not transform itself into something else, had a property called "spin" of one-half, and that its spin was left-handed, relative to the neutrino's direction of motion.

But that description has been radically changed in the past week. Now it seems, neutrinos have mass, and because of that, they can also have right-handed spin, said Dr. Maurice Goldhaber, former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, who is attending the meeting in Takayama.

In the late 1950s Goldhaber discovered the left-handed spin of neutrinos.

"Neutrinos," he once wrote, "induce courage in theoreticians and perseverance in experimenters."

Muon neutrinos -- neutrinos associated with short-lived, highly penetrating muon particles -- are now known beyond reasonable doubt to "oscillate" over distance into one of the two other known types, or perhaps even into a fourth, hypothetical, type called a "sterile neutrino."

This was the conclusion of the 120 Japanese and American physicists who have been looking for neutrino oscillations during the past two years using a cathedral-size underground water tank called Super-Kamiokande about 30 miles north of here.

Although it is relatively easy to express the idea of neutrino oscillation in words or equations, it is less easy to grasp the counterintuitive wonder of the phenomenon.

Dr. Stanley Wojcicki of Stanford University in California, one of the neutrino scientists attending the conference here, compared the discovery of neutrino oscillation to what light would undergo if it could also oscillate.

"A beam of light in any color can be thought of as composed of the three primary colors: Red, Green and Blue," Wojcicki wrote in a recent summary. "Imagine a beam that starts out as pure red slowly acquiring a green or bluish tinge as it shines through space."

By analogy, this is a kind of transformation that neutrinos are known to undergo, he said.

Most recent neutrino experiments confirm the belief by many physicists that neutrinos come in three -- and only three -- varieties. But controversy has arisen over an experiment performed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Other laboratories have not been able to confirm the Los Alamos result, but if the Los Alamos work (and some related experiments by other groups) should prove true, theorists would have to accept the need for "new physics," specifically the existence of one or more sterile neutrinos.

The hypothetical sterile neutrinos would be at the very edge between existence and nonexistence, since they could be detected only by the trace of gravitational pull they would exert.

Dr. Leon Lederman, retired director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, shared in the award of a Nobel Prize for showing that there are more than one type of neutrino. He once wrote that "a particle that reacted with nothing whatever could never be detected. It would be a fiction. The neutrino is barely a fact."

This definition places the neutrino perilously close to nonexistence, and a sterile neutrino that is affected only by gravity becomes even more tenuous. Many physicists, who regard "beautiful" ideas in physics as more likely to be true than ugly ones, regard sterile neutrinos as esthetically inelegant and therefore improbable.

Another peculiar hypothetical particle which has been sought for four decades is the magnetic monopole -- an entity that has been compared with the Zen Buddhist notion of the sound of one hand clapping.

A magnetic monopole, a supposed relic of the Big Bang explosion, would have only a single magnetic polarity. An ordinary magnet, whether it is a simple iron bar or the entire earth, always has both a north and south pole. Cutting a magnet in two yields two magnets, each with a north and south pole -- never a single pole.

Despite this, physicists have not ruled out the existence of monopoles. Experiments at Fermilab in Illinois and within the Gran Sasso mountain tunnel in Italy, among other laboratories, continue to look for the elusive particle among the cosmic ray fragments that hit the earth.

If it is ever found, scientists from countries steeped in Buddhist tradition will not be unduly overwhelmed.