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Physicists searching for evidence of a “light sterile neutrino”, a hypothetical particle that could give clues to cosmic puzzles such as the nature of dark matter and why the Universe is made of matter at all, have announced their hunt has come back empty-handed.

The MicroBooNE experiment at Fermilab was designed to follow up on earlier hints of neutrinos behaving oddly, but the negative result deals a blow to the idea of such a new elementary particle.

Neutrinos are lightweight, elusive subatomic particles, and current theories recognise three different types. In 1995, however, the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector experiment in Los Alamos detected more of one type than anyone expected.

Most attempts to explain the anomaly proposed the existence of a fourth kind of neutrino that barely interacts with normal matter at all: a so-called “sterile” neutrino.

More recent experiments have also reported results broadly consistent with the sterile neutrino hypothesis, but the MicroBooNE result casts the whole idea into doubt.

What’s sterile neutrino?

Neutrinos are subatomic particles postulated by Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli in 1930 to explain how some radioactive atoms fire out electrons.

Their existence was not confirmed until 1956, when Americans Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines observed tiny flashes of light made by neutrinos crashing into the atoms in a…

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