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Boffins have built what could be one of the world's smallest working detectors of elusive neutrino particles.

Grad students Bjorn Scholz and Grayson Rich hold neutrino detector CosI during installation. It looks like they are trying to illustrate the concept of a handheld neutrino detector, or maybe mix a martini, but in reality they're carefully holding onto it "for dear life". Pic: Juan Collar, University of Chicago
Neutrinos – elementary particles of physics – come from sources including the Sun, cosmic rays and even nuclear reactions on Earth. They can travel throughout the planet, but they're frustratingly special because you can't observe them directly. They're like ghosts – you can only detect how they interact with matter.

To measure these interactions, physicists typically use bulky detectors on the order of metric tonnes. Frederick Reines – who was recognised with the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1956 work with Clyde Cowan on first detecting neutrinos – employed an approximately four metric tonne detector to observe the inverse of a reaction called beta decay, which is when a neutron radioactively decays into a proton, electron and anti-neutrino.

The large size of detectors is partly because some types of neutrino interactions are very unlikely, so you normally need a very large instrument to get a good view.

"We are really entering an era of miniaturized neutrino detector technology," Phil Barbeau, a particle physicist at Duke University who was part of the international collaboration (called COHERENT) that has created something much smaller, told The Register.

Particle boffins show off 'cheap', cute little CosI, world's smallest neutrino detector • The Register

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