The huge, imposing, lovely central hall in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan is a place filled with color — gigantic multipaned windows light the massive space, which usually is crowded with commuters and tourists, some brightly dressed, some rushing, some gawking.
But imagine it in black and white, because it’s 1944, and this is a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with men in suits and fedoras and women in smartly tailored suits. There’s a family group gathered to say goodbye to a young couple.
Let’s focus on them.
The attractive young couple is about to board a train. The tall young man, who grew up in Paterson, graduated from Union City High School and then from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken — just about as Jersey a boy as possible — is a physicist with a newly minted doctorate from NYU.
The couple — Frederick and Sylvia Samuels Reines — was going … well, somewhere. Somewhere west of the East Coast.
Later, the youngest family member at Grand Central to say goodbye to his cousin Fred, Dr. Leonard Cole of Ridgewood (10-year-old Lenny of Paterson back then), remembers that Fred, 16 years his senior and ever the teacher, took the time to explain one of the mysteries of the station. The doors swung open mysteriously. Why? It was an early infrared sensor, Dr. Reines explained; it seemed magical, and Fred’s description of it was lucid and enthusiastic.
As the family later learned, Fred and Sylvia Reines were on their way to Los Alamos, where he went to work on the Manhattan Project, developing the nuclear weapon that ended World War II.
Dr. Reines was a multitalented, exuberant, brilliant man who won a Nobel Prize for his work in detecting the existence of neutrinos, the elusive ever-present, unimaginably fast, barrier-impervious particles whose existence had been posited but not proven before the work he and his scientific partner in this endeavor, Clyde Cowan, did.
Dr. Cole, who went on to have his own impressive career — he’s a now-retired dentist who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia and has written 11 books, many on the intersection of biology and politics, and he’s a former president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, as well as the national Jewish Council of Public Affairs — has just published a book about his cousin, “Chasing the Ghost: Nobelist Fred Reines and the Neutrino.”
He remembers Fred, who was born in 1918, as “a very exciting person. He seemed to be a repository of energy. Whenever he’d see me, he’d ask how I was doing in school, and he seemed to be particularly happy one time, when I was about 8, and I told him that I’d visited the Hayden Planetarium. When I was about 10 or 11, and he was in his late 20s, he took me to the Museum of Science and Industry,” an early, now-defunct hands-on institution.
Dr. Cole’s admiration for his larger-than-life cousin led him to write this book, which is part biography, part science primer for that apparent majority of us readers who have no idea what a neutrino might be, much less how to detect one.
Fred Reines, as Dr. Cole tells us, was born in a family with a deep Jewish history. His great-uncle, Isaac Jacob Reines, a 19th-century Lithuanian rabbi, founded the early Zionist Mizrachi movement.
Fred’s parents, Lenny Cole’s aunt Gussie Cohen (it had been Krinsky until the family got to America, when they changed it) and Israel Reines, both Russian-born, married in New York and moved to Paterson, where Israel worked in one of the city’s many silk mills. But that industry moved south and the city declined, so the Reines moved north, over the New York state line, to Hillburn, in Rockland County, where they bought and ran a general store. That lasted for five years, and then the family moved back to Paterson, this time for good.
“In the end of this extended letter, he wrote that we have opened a double possibility at Los Alamos. There is the catastrophe of what war can bring, and the destructive capacity of the new weapons — but there is also the usefulness of what we can learn in atomic explosions.”
Fred grew up as an athletic, gregarious, intellectually curious boy; he fell in love with physics, he wrote many years later, as Dr. Cole reports, “during a moment of boredom at religious school, when looking out of the window at twilight through a hand curled to simulate a telescope, I noticed something peculiar about the light; it was a phenomenon of diffraction. That began for me a fascination with light.”
He also did gymnastics and was so serious a singer that he considered a career as a performer; he joined choruses and sang — mainly Gilbert and Sullivan and other light opera, and heavier opera as well — throughout his life. He was the youngest of seven children, most of whom also had impressive careers. To understate, he came from a smart, accomplished, driven family.
When Dr. Reines went to Los Alamos, he became less of a constant presence in Dr. Cole’s life, but he remained a vivid force.
When he got to Los Alamos, Dr. Reines didn’t talk to his family about it, but “when the world — including us — learned about the bomb, we understood very clearly that he was part of it,” Dr. Cole said. “Much of the experience was classified, although he did have a few conversations about it with me, and he did write a meaningful letter to Stevens alumni magazine about it, where he discussed his nonclassified experiences.
Dr. Reines stayed at Los Alamos after the Manhattan Project ended and most of the scientists returned to the positions they’d left. In 1959, he moved to Case Institute in Ohio; in 1965, he moved to the University of California in Irvine, where he became the founding dean of the school of physical sciences. That was his home for the last 30 years of his life.
It was during his time at Los Alamos that Fred Reines began his hunt for the neutrino.
The idea of this ghost particle came from an Austrian scientist, Wolfgang Pauli, another Nobel laureate, who “postulated that there was something amiss in the whole notion of the conservation of energy,” Dr. Cole said. “That means that theoretically you can convert energy into mass and mass into energy. When you light a match, you are converting mass into energy. The idea of the conservation of energy is the notion that what goes in is what must come out. There must be a measurable equivalency.
“Pauli theorized that there was something a little wrong, that there was something, some little piece, that was missing. What was going in and what was coming out was a little different. He theorized that there must be another particle.
“He said that evidence shows that there is such a particle, but it could never be detected or confirmed because it has the tiniest of masses, if it has mass at all. And it has no charge. A proton has a positive charge, an electron has a negative charge, but a neutrino has no charge at all.
“There is a tremendous number of these tiny particles, according to this theoretical notion, but you can’t identify them because there is no reaction.
“So, Pauli said, ‘I have created a terrible situation. I have done a terrible thing. I have projected a notion that can’t be confirmed.’”
Fred Reines took on the challenge of detecting the neutrino.
“He said that he first thought of possibly trying to identify the neutrino in 1947, because in theory, a nuclear explosion would cause a large production of neutrinos,” and in Los Alamos just then, nuclear explosions were much on scientists’ minds. “In 1953, he and his colleague, Clyde Cowan, tried to find a manner of identifying them.
“They are virtually undetectable because they so rarely interact with anything else,” Dr. Cole continued. “But as you sit there, they go right through you. In one second, trillions of neutrinos go right through your body.
“They can go through any solid object. They don’t react with anything. They just zip right through. A neutrino can move through substances like thousands of tons of lead, and keep moving as if the lead wasn’t there.”
They’re naturally occurring, he said. “They are produced in various ways throughout the universe, and there was an understanding that they could be produced by a nuclear weapon.”
There was a push, during the Eisenhower administration, to explore and exploit the benefits of atomic power; President Eisenhower’s 1953 speech to the United Nations was about a program called Atoms for Peace, which helped academic institutions work toward that end; in fact, at least according to Wikipedia, Israel’s first nuclear reactor was a result of that program. It appealed to Dr. Reines too, but he also saw the dangers not only of atomic weapons, but of the environmental disasters produced by testing them.
That’s why he decided to try to hunt for neutrinos underground. This might not be a characteristic often applied to physicists, but Dr. Reines was a bit of a swashbuckler. He went about the hunt with characteristic brio.
The way to find a neutrino — to simplify ridiculously but necessarily — is to find “the unique signals that they create,” Dr. Cole said. That would be done with “a neutrino detector filled with water or certain chemicals.” That could “mimic the tons of natural cosmic rays that are constantly bombarding the earth.
“Fred and his team were able to use a nuclear reactor that would show an identification that would fit into the theoretical understanding of neutrinos. There were still skeptics; they wanted to show that this was not necessarily just a theoretical construct.”
Neutrinos, Dr. Cole said, come from “reactions from the core of the sun, hydrogen atoms that fuse into helium atoms. This action creates great energy, which first is confined to the core and then moves through the plasma.”
The neutrinos, unlike everything else, unlike “the light and heat that we experience from the sun, that had their origins thousands of years ago, take only eight minutes to reach us.” They race from the sun to and through us, undetected and virtually undetectable.
How to find them?
It was necessary to go underground to experiment. First Dr. Reines tried a salt mine in Ohio, close to where he then worked, at Case University, but it wasn’t deep enough. So he and his associates went to South Africa, to a gold mine deep below the surface — and in a country poisoned by apartheid, and whose miners were barely protected from the many dangers they encountered every day — where he conducted spectacularly perilous experiments.
They worked. In his book, Dr. Cole explains how they worked, and what they proved; for here, it’s enough to say that the experiments paid off.
“Fred expected to win the Nobel prize the next week,” Dr. Cole said. “It took 40 years” — he won in 1995, and died three years later.
Dr. Cole talked to many scientists for his book. Some of them, retired and in some cases very old — “I talked to one guy who was 100,” Dr. Cole said — had worked with Dr. Reines when they were young. “They all loved him,” Dr. Cole said. “They thought he was fantastic.”
Dr. Reines taught throughout his career. “In 1972, he began a course for non-science majors that he called Rainbows and Things,” Dr. Cole said. “He said that you don’t need to learn formulas or complex mathematics to appreciate basic science. He also said that it is an absurdity that a broadly educated person would not know the basic science behind things like rainbows.
“That course had about 25 students the first time he taught it, and two years later more than 200 enrolled.”
Dr. Reines wrote poetry and essays; he performed not only as a singer, but as an actor as well. “He played the lead in a local production of ‘Inherit the Wind’ in 1959, only four years after it first opened on Broadway,” Dr. Cole said. The play is based on the Scopes trial, which pitted the ideas of evolution and science against faith and religion; his character, Henry Drummond, is modeled after the lawyer Clarence Darrow. “That part was perfect for Fred, because it was what he personally believed,” Dr. Cole said. He was forthright in his belief in rationality over superstition, and in intellectual rigor over more appealing sentimentality.
But he also loved sentiment and stories. When he taught Rainbows and Things, he told the story of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and the leprechauns who hunt it, but according to Dr. Cole, he didn’t talk about his own connection to that pot of gold.
Dr. Reines had a lead role in a local version of “Finian’s Rainbow,” the 1947 Yip Harburg and Burton Lane Broadway musical about that mythic hunt. He sang one of its best-known songs, “Look to the Rainbow”; that song’s refrain is “Look, look, Look to the rainbow. / Follow the fellow who follows a dream.”
Dr. Reines saw the rainbow as a symbol of both science and beauty, Dr. Cole said, and he deeply loved both. “He said that when you see beauty, when you see a rainbow, it makes us all feel better.
“I see that as symbolic of his life,” Dr. Cole concluded; it symbolizes his intellect, his constant striving for the gold that comes with accomplishment, his love of the shimmering, unstable beauty that neither it nor the neutrino really embody —they’re too insubstantial for that — but they do represent.