Microneutrinos

Nicole Walker

When I was fifteen, I read a book about a mute girl who went to a bar to see a show. She went into the bathroom and came out with the lead singer’s name carved into her forehead. The lead singer, guilty and guilted, married the girl. It wasn’t until after the wedding, after the baby, after the years of silence, that the lead singer, who didn’t sing anymore, found out it was not his wife who cut his name in her forehead. A stranger-woman had accosted his now-wife in the bathroom and carved the singer’s name in her forehead. Should he have married that woman instead?

Neutrinos could tell us, but neutrinos, in their mathematic existence, don’t talk. If the universe is indeed expanding, then, we will surely never die. Of course, we get the news too late. Dead stars sending obituaries of light. The name reads backwards in the mirror. We can’t see our future until it’s very well past.

I googled this: “Cesar girl carved name bathroom singer.” Google came back with a different book, one by Anne Tyler about a different girl who carved the name of a singer she had a crush on into her forehead. It is not the same book. My book had a woodcut of the word “Cesar” on the cover. But Google already knew what I was going to ask. It came up with a close-enough answer. No wonder no one reads books anymore.

It is very difficult to observe neutrinos, especially muon and tau neutrinos. First you must know neutrons, electrons and protons. Then you must know anti-neutrinos. Invite them over for video games. Once you have gotten to know them, try to steal the joystick. The way the hand goes slack when emptied. The speed of resignation. You now have all the control in your hands. And now you know something else about the universe. Neutrinos are weak.

The book, not the book about the singer and the carving, but rather the book by Anne Tyler, is now also a movie starring Guy Pearce. I can’t picture Guy Pearce without thinking of Pierce Brosnan, who played Remington Steele around the same time I read my book about the girl who carved/was carved with the name of a future husband that she did not necessarily already love.

I dated a man who wrote a thesis about neutrinos. He and I went to the bar Dots and the bar La Cruda and the bar Horse Brass. We drank beer until one day I went out of town and he slept with another woman. I chalked it up to coincidence, this drinking beer. This thesis. These neutrinos. Other women. Who can see them? Not I? The beer is gone.

There are so many neutrinos in the universe that even a small neutrino mass can display great significance. Think of the Grand Canyon. Think of a piece of sand. Think of a piece of sand falling into the Grand Canyon, into the river. Weigh the Colorado. How do you measure absence? What did moving that grain of sand dislodge? How did it lose itself in its fall? “The energy spectrum of the observable electrons in a radioactive beta decay is modified if the electron neutrino has a non-zero mass. The unseen neutrinos are emitted uniformly in momentum, but for a massive neutrino the change in energy for momenta up to about 0.5*m*c is small, so a relatively large number of electrons are emitted at close to the maximum energy.” It was bad enough when we were asked to imagine light speed and stars signaling light back to us that had so long ago gone out. How do you measure the dark cut, the cave, the cutout? Non-zero mass. Unseen neutrinos. A plummet into a future that might have already disappeared so fast that it never even happened.

In another bar, in Salt Lake, then called the Fat Squirrels or the Urban Lounge or “across from the Greek place” in another bathroom whose stalls had no doors at all, let alone locks, I was accosted by a woman, otherwise known as my best friend, whose husband was a musician. His name was not written into her forehead, so you couldn’t exactly call it love, but she told me to marry my musician, she held my arms behind my back, marched me to the toilet. That is where love is. She flushed and flushed until I forgot about my old boyfriend, the neutrino one, whose lock on his truck door was broken. She pushed me out the door into the boyfriend who was like her husband in that the music swallowed him, in that his dancing included one foot, in that at night, on the red vinyl of his GMC pickup I could see myself in his mirror.  Even though I didn’t carve the word “Cesar” into my forehead, I did cut my name into the bench seat of that truck. There was no going back now.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) will be able to detect all three types of neutrinos, the electron neutrino, muon, and tau. If we are lucky enough to have a nearby supernova SNO may be able to improve the limits on the muon and tau neutrinos. But the supernova has already happened and the measuring has already begun. The universe is heavier, more written, more full of that black inky stuff you call sky, more full of blood and forehead, more full of bathroom stalls and locks and knives and edges than the most powerful telescope, more red and piercing than Hubble can measure. There is matter there. It may still vacuum the hell out of your lungs, but in the universe, you do not drift alone.

Eleven years later that scar on the bench seat still cuts into my leg when non-neutrino husband and I go four-wheeling off Highway 180, taking the back roads to the Grand Canyon. We have expanded, not just fat-wise and not just children-wise, but in a we-scribbled-our-names-over-and-over way, each name on top of the other until the words we were writing became something more than light. Heavy now, not better, not worse, but as invisible and massive as any neutrino and as already always there, staving off radioactive beta decay even as the truck barrels faster down that already-rutted road.


NICOLE WALKER’s nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published in June. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which was released by Bloomsbury in March 2013. She’s a nonfiction editor at Diagram. She is associate professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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