Penning Trap

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    ​Central Michigan University physics faculty member Matt Redshaw and his students are proud to be making a big deal of almost nothing.

    They are working to help determine the precise mass of neutrinos, the "ghost particles" of the universe that for many years scientists didn't even know existed because their mass is near zero. Billions of them are thought to have been born during the Big Bang, and knowing their mass would contribute to theories of how the universe evolved, Redshaw said.

    "There are enough of them that they can exert a gravitational influence on the universe," he said.

    But because they are so tiny, measuring their mass has proven nearly impossible. The best measurement that scientists have been able to make is putting upper limits on its mass. The most recent measurement, made in September in Germany, said it can't have mass of more than 1.1 electron volts, or about one five-hundred-thousandth the mass of an electron.

    They are building an advanced Penning trap that, combined with measurements from research groups at Los Alamos National Laboratory and in Germany, promises to deliver a more precise upper limit measurement of the neutrino mass. A Penning trap uses static electric and magnetic fields to confine charged particles for measurement.
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