MINERvA searches for wisdom among neutrinos

28 March 2014

Precise measurements of cross-sections continue a rich history of neutrino physics at Fermilab.

MINERvA Collab

Neutrino physicists enjoy a challenge, and the members of the MINERvA (Main INjector ExpeRiment for v-A) collaboration at Fermilab are no exception. MINERvA seeks to make precise measurements of neutrino reactions using the Neutrinos at the Main Injector (NuMI) beam on both light and heavy nuclei. Does this goal reflect the wisdom of the collaboration’s namesake? Current and future accelerator-based neutrino-oscillation experiments must precisely predict neutrino reactions on the nuclei if they are to search successfully for CP violation in oscillations. Understanding matter–antimatter asymmetries might in turn lead to a microphysical mechanism to answer the most existential of questions: why are we here? Although MINERvA might provide vital assistance in meeting this worthy goal, neutrinos never yield answers easily. Moreover, using neutrinos to probe the dynamics of reactions on complicated nuclei convolutes two challenges.

The history of neutrinos is wrought with theorists underestimating the persistence of experimentalists (Close 2010). Wolfgang Pauli’s quip about the prediction of the neutrino, “I have done a terrible thing. I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected,” is a famous example. Nature rejected Enrico Fermi’s 1933 paper explaining β decay, saying it “contained speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to readers”. Eighty years ago, when Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls calculated the first prediction for the neutrino cross-section, they said, “there is no practical way of detecting a neutrino” (p23). But when does practicality ever stop physicists? The theoretical framework developed during the following two decades predicted numerous measurements of great interest using neutrinos, but the technology of the time was not sufficient to enable those measurements. The story of neutrinos across the ensuing decades is that of many dedicated experimentalists overcoming these barriers. Today, the MINERvA experiment continues Fermilab’s rich history of difficult neutrino measurements.

Neutrinos at Fermilab

Fermilab’s research on neutrinos is as old as the lab itself. While it was still being built, the first director, Robert Wilson, said in 1971 that the initial aim of experiments on the accelerator system was to detect a neutrino. “I feel that we then will be in business to do experiments on our accelerator…[Experiment E1A collaborators’] enthusiasm and improvisation gives us a real incentive to provide them with the neutrinos they are waiting for.” The first experiment, E1A, was designed to study the weak interaction using neutrinos, and was one of the first experiments to see evidence of the weak neutral current. In the early years, neutrino detectors at Fermilab were both the “15 foot” (4.6 m) bubble chamber filled with neon or hydrogen, and coarse-grained calorimeters. As the lab grew, the detector technologies expanded to include emulsion, oil-based Cherenkov detectors, totally active scintillator detectors, and liquid-argon time-projection chambers. The physics programme expanded as well, to include 42 neutrino experiments either completed (37), running (3) or being commissioned (2). The NuTeV experiment collected an unprecedented million high-energy neutrino and antineutrino interactions, of both charged and neutral currents. It provided precise measurements of structure functions and a measurement of the weak mixing angle in an off-shell process with comparable precision to contemporary W-mass measurements (Formaggio and Zeller 2013). Then in 2001, the DONuT experiment observed the τ neutrino – the last of the fundamental fermions to be detected.

neutrino event

While much of the progress of particle physics has come by making proton beams of higher and higher energies, the most recent progress at Fermilab has come from making neutrino beams of lower energies but higher intensities. This shift reflects the new focus on neutrino oscillations, where the small neutrino mass demands low-energy beams sent over long distances. While NuTeV and DONuT used beams of 100 GeV neutrinos in the 1990s, the MiniBooNE experiment, started in 2001, used a 1 GeV neutrino beam to search for oscillations over a short distance. The MINOS experiment, which started in 2005, used 3 GeV neutrinos and measured them both at Fermilab and in a detector 735 km away, to study oscillations that were seen in atmospheric neutrinos. MicroBooNE and NOvA – two experiments completing construction at the time of this article – will place yet more sensitive detectors in these neutrino beamlines. Fermilab is also planning the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment to be broadly sensitive to resolve CP violation in neutrinos.

A spectrum of interactions

Depending on the energy of the neutrino, different types of interactions will take place (Formaggio and Zeller 2013, Kopeliovich et al. 2012). In low-energy interactions, the neutrino will scatter from the entire nucleus, perhaps ejecting one or more of the constituent nucleons in a process referred to as quasi-elastic scattering. At slightly higher energies, the neutrinos interact with nucleons and can excite a nucleon into a baryon resonance that typically decays to create new final-state hadrons. In the high-energy limit, much of the scattering can be described as neutrinos scattering from individual quarks in the familiar deep-inelastic scattering framework. MINERvA seeks to study this entire spectrum of interactions.

To measure CP violation in neutrino-oscillation experiments, quasi-elastic scattering is an important channel. In a simple model where the nucleons of the nucleus live in a nuclear binding potential, the reaction rate can be predicted. In addition, an accurate estimate of the energy of the incoming neutrino can be made using only the final-state charged lepton’s energy and angle, which are easy to measure even in a massive neutrino-oscillation experiment. However, the MiniBooNE experiment at Fermilab and the NOMAD experiment at CERN both measured the quasi-elastic cross-section and found contradictory results in the framework of this simple model (Formaggio and Zeller 2013, Kopeliovich et al. 2012).

he neutrino quasi-elastic cross-section

One possible explanation of this discrepancy can be found in more sophisticated treatments of the environment in which the interaction occurs (Formaggio and Zeller 2013, Kopeliovich et al. 2012). The simple relativistic Fermi-gas model treats the nucleus as quasi-free independent nucleons with Fermi motion in a uniform binding potential. The spectral-function model includes more correlation among the nucleons in the nucleus. However, more complete models that include the interactions among the many nucleons in the nucleus modify the quasi-elastic reaction significantly. In addition to modelling the nuclear environment on the initial reaction, final-state interactions of produced hadrons inside the nucleus must also be modelled. For example, if a pion is created inside the nucleus, it might be absorbed on interacting with other nucleons before leaving the nucleus. Experimentalists must provide sufficient data to distinguish between the models.

The ever-elusive neutrino has forced experimentalists to develop clever ways to measure neutrino cross-sections, and this is exactly what MINERvA is designed to do with precision. The experiment uses the NuMI beam – a highly intense neutrino beam. The MINERvA detector is made of finely segmented scintillators, allowing the measurement of the angles and energies of the particles within. Figures 1 and 2 show the detector and a typical event in the nuclear targets. The MINOS near-detector, located just behind MINERvA, is used to measure the momentum and charge of the muons. With this information, MINERvA can measure precise cross-sections of different types of neutrino interactions: quasi-elastic, resonance production, and deep-inelastic scatters, among others.

ratio of charged-current cross-section

The MINERvA collaboration began by studying the quasi-elastic muon neutrino scattering for both neutrinos (MINERvA 2013b) and antineutrinos (MINERvA 2013a). By measuring the muon kinematics to estimate the neutrino energies, they were able to measure the neutrino and antineutrino cross-sections. The data, shown in figure 3, suggest that the nucleons do spend some time in the nucleus joined together in pairs. When the neutrino interacts with the pair, the pair is kicked out of the nucleus. Using the visible energy around the nucleus allowed a search for evidence of the pair of nucleons. Experience from electron quasi-elastic scattering leads to an expectation of final-state proton–proton pairs for neutrino quasi-elastic scattering and neutron–neutron pairs for antineutrino scattering. MINERvA’s measurements of the energy around the vertex in both neutrino and antineutrino quasi-elastic scattering support this expectation (figure 3, right).

A 30-year-old puzzle

Another surprise beyond the standard picture in lepton–nucleus scattering emerged 30 years ago in deep-inelastic muon scattering. The European Muon Collaboration (EMC) observed a modification of the structure functions in heavy nuclei that is still theoretically unresolved, in part because there is no other reaction in which an analogous effect is observe. Neutrino and antineutrino deep-inelastic scattering might see related effects with different leptonic currents, and therefore different couplings to the constituents of the nucleus (Gallagher et al. 2010, Kopeliovich et al. 2012). MINERvA has begun this study using large targets of active scintillator and passive graphite, iron and lead (MINERvA 2014). Figure 4 shows the ratio of lead to scintillator and illustrates behaviour that is not in agreement with a model based on charged-lepton scattering modifications of deep-inelastic scattering and the elastic physics described above. Similar behaviour, but with smaller deviations from the model, is observed in the ratio of iron to scintillator. MINERvA’s investigation of this effect will benefit greatly from its current operation in the upgraded NuMI beam for the NOvA experiment, which is more intense and higher in (the beamline’s on-axis) energy. Both features will allow more access to the kinematic regions where deep-inelastic scattering dominates. By including a long period of antineutrino operation needed for NOvA’s oscillation studies, an even more complete survey of the nucleons can be done. The end result of these investigations will be a data set that can offer a new window on the process behind the EMC effect.

Initially in the history of the neutrino, theory led experiment by several decades

Initially in the history of the neutrino, theory led experiment by several decades. Now, experiment leads theory. Neutrino physics has repeatedly identified interesting and unexpected physics. Currently, physics is trying to understand how the most abundant particle in the universe interacts in the simplest of situations. MINERvA is just getting started on answering these types of questions and there are many more interactions to study. The collaboration is also looking at what happens when neutrinos make pions or kaons when they hit a nucleus, and how well they can measure the number of times a neutrino scatters off an electron – the only “standard candle” in this business.

Time after time, models fail to predict what is seen in neutrino physics. The MINERvA experiment, among others, has shown that quasi-elastic scattering is a wonderful tool to study the nuclear environment. Maybe the use of neutrinos, once thought to be impossible to detect, as a probe to study inside the nucleus, would make Pauli, Fermi, Bethe, Peierls and the rest chuckle.

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