11 December 2018

The mystery particle of the Universe


Irene Tamborra, Knud Højgaard associate professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, has received 4.5 million DKK from the Carlsberg Foundation to investigate the role of the perhaps most elusive and mysterious known elementary particle, the neutrino, in the most energetic events occurring in our Universe. Neutrinos travel through space with nearly no interaction within celestial bodies or the intergalactic environment. Hence the neutrino is the perfect messenger particle, as it may carry “pure” information from extremely energetic astronomical events happening in deep space, far, far away. At the same time, neutrinos play a fundamental role in powering the most energetic events occurring in our sky.

The neutrino: The messenger of the Universe

Irene’s project entitled “Neutrino Astrophysics” revolves around a fascinating elementary particle heralding the dawn of the multi-messenger astronomy era, the neutrino. Neutrinos are abundantly produced in a number of astrophysical sources, ranging from our Sun to the most extreme transient events occurring in our Universe, such as core-collapse supernovae and gamma-ray bursts.

Neutrinos are produced in the core of these sources; then, since neutrinos interact extremely weakly, they propagate almost undisturbed until they reach Earth. Hence, neutrinos carry information about the extreme physics occurring in the core of astrophysical sources, not otherwise accessible. In other words, if we “read” the information carried by neutrinos correctly, they are likely to shed light on a multitude of astrophysical events and the physics ruling them.

Given their puzzling behavior, some of the neutrino properties are still to be unraveled. In particular, neutrinos may interact in “non-standard ways,” i.e. neutrinos may have new unknown interactions beyond the ones we currently assume. The eventual non-standard interactions of neutrinos could then affect the yet mysterious engine of astrophysical sources in fascinating ways. Irene’s project will draw back the curtain on the role of neutrinos and their possible non-standard interactions in astrophysical environments.

Societal implications of basic research

There are often other aspects of basic research than the research itself. “This project will give me the opportunity to teach topics at the forefront of Particle Astrophysics and Astrophysics to Master and Bachelor students. All the students and the postdocs involved in the project will familiarize with various computational techniques and handle big data sets; hence, this project will provide them with expertise with a long range of applications in other research areas and in the private sector. Moreover, this project will help me to encourage marginalized and underrepresented minorities to pursue higher education in Science”, says Irene Tamborra.

The grant will enable the employment of two postdocs and one PhD student. It will also provide funding to support a PhD School and an international conference to be held at the Niels Bohr Institute with focus on the grant subject.