The Italian Almanac

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Shape Shifting

Italian researchers have observed the second 'shape-shifting' neutrino ever seen, a Tokyo conference on these sub-atomic particles was told. Both observations were made in the Gran Sasso laboratory of Italy's National Nuclear Physics Institute (INFN), deep under the largest mountain in Italy outside the Alps. The INFN researchers in the OPERA project again saw one type of neutrino changing into another kind, the conference heard.

This type of spontaneously "flip-flopping" had never been seen before May 2010 when the Gran Sasso lab announced the first instance. Scientists say further observations of this behaviour may shed light on how matter came to dominate over antimatter in the universe. When the detection of the first shape-shifting neutrino was announced on May 31, it was hailed as potentially the most exciting find in particle physics in decades.

The discovery came after more than three years of peering at these mysterious sub-atomic particles shot down from the CERN European nuclear research centre in the Alps near Geneva. The so-called 'oscillation' could lead to a radical rethink in particle physics, said INFN chief Roberto Petronzio. The transformation of a muon neutrino into a tau neutrino during its 730km, 2.4 millisecond trip from the CERN lab in Geneva could be the prelude for a new kind of physics, "not envisaged by existing knowledge," Petronzio said. "Scientists could start seeing "new particles, new types of interaction or even new space-time dimensions".

The ground-breaking experiment in particle physics started on September 11, 2009, when CERN sent its first burst of neutrinos down to OPERA. Since then, billions and billions of the particles have arrived at the lab. The CERN Neutrino To Gran Sasso (CNGS) experiment was expressly set up to establish that neutrinos can change 'flavour' - an hypothesis first raised almost 70 years ago by famed Italian physicist Guido Pontecorvo.