Why Do We Exist? Fermilab’s NOvA Experiment Intends To Provide An Answer

Physicists calculate that both matter and antimatter were created during the big bang in equal quantities. If this is true then why does ordinary matter dominate? Why does life, planets, galaxies, etc exist?

When matter interacts with antimatter both annihilate to produce decay products such as, gamma-ray photons, neutrinos and other lower mass particle-antiparticle pairs. Why then, when bearing this in mind, are we here to ponder this and other physical phenomena? If all matter annihilated at the very inception of the universe all that should exist is a dead structureless space devoid of anything we know the universe to contain, including life.

To help solve this and other secific problems connected with particle physics, Fermilab have devised and constructed the NOvA experiment.

NOvA consists of two specially constructed detectors located 810km apart (Fermilab HQ and Ash River,  North Minnesota) and a high powered neutrino beam source (NUmI – Neutrinos at Main Injector) located at Fermilab, Chicago.

NOvA Detector

NOvA Detector

An individual block slice of the NOvA detectors

An individual block slice of the NOvA detectors






The facility is now up and running and is expected to reveal insights into the very nature of neutrinos. This will entail exploring both how they oscillate and how they transform into various types or ‘flavours’ (muon, electron, tau)—investigating this behaviour is expected to provide critical answers regarding the predominance of matter.

The facility works by firing a high energy beam of muon neutrinos through both detectors and monitoring how the constituent parts of the beam might potentially change. To date, researchers have recorded how neutrinos transform between muon and tau varieties, although muon to electron neutrino events have never been physically detected—it is this transformation that is hoped to be captured by NOvA.

The NUmI horn which will provide the neutrino beam for Fermilab's experiments

The NUmI horn which will provide the neutrino beam for Fermilab’s experiments

Further aspects of neutrino physics are also planned for investigation:

Each type is believed to contain a different mass value, therefore mass order will hopefully be deduced. Also, research into how muon neutrinos oscillate compared to their antiparticle equivalent should provide answers associated with CP violation (charge-parity) and any associated mechanism that might have initiated the matter-antimatter asymmetry you, I and the universe experience today.

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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