Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Can MiniBooNE be right?

The experimental situation in neutrino physics is confusing. One one hand, a host of neutrino experiments has established a consistent picture where the neutrino mass eigenstates are mixtures of the 3 Standard Model neutrino flavors νe, νμ, ντ. The measured mass differences between the eigenstates are Δm12^2 ≈ 7.5*10^-5 eV^2 and Δm13^2 ≈ 2.5*10^-3 eV^2, suggesting that all Standard Model neutrinos have masses below 0.1 eV. That is well in line with cosmological observations which find that the radiation budget of the early universe is consistent with the existence of exactly 3 neutrinos with the sum of the masses less than 0.2 eV. On the other hand, several rogue experiments refuse to conform to the standard 3-flavor picture. The most severe anomaly is the appearance of electron neutrinos in a muon neutrino beam observed by the LSND and MiniBooNE experiments.


This story begins in the previous century with the LSND experiment in Los Alamos, which claimed to observe νμνe antineutrino oscillations with 3.8σ significance.  This result was considered controversial from the very beginning due to limitations of the experimental set-up. Moreover, it was inconsistent with the standard 3-flavor picture which, given the masses and mixing angles measured by other experiments, predicted that νμνe oscillation should be unobservable in short-baseline (L ≼ km) experiments. The MiniBooNE experiment in Fermilab was conceived to conclusively prove or disprove the LSND anomaly. To this end, a beam of mostly muon neutrinos or antineutrinos with energies E~1 GeV is sent to a detector at the distance L~500 meters away. In general, neutrinos can change their flavor with the probability oscillating as P ~ sin^2(Δm^2 L/4E). If the LSND excess is really due to neutrino oscillations, one expects to observe electron neutrino appearance in the MiniBooNE detector given that L/E is similar in the two experiments. Originally, MiniBooNE was hoping to see a smoking gun in the form of an electron neutrino excess oscillating as a function of L/E, that is peaking at intermediate energies and then decreasing towards lower energies (possibly with several wiggles). That didn't happen. Instead, MiniBooNE finds an excess increasing towards low energies with a similar shape as the backgrounds. Thus the confusion lingers on: the LSND anomaly has neither been killed nor robustly confirmed.     

In spite of these doubts, the LSND and MiniBooNE anomalies continue to arouse interest. This is understandable: as the results do not fit the 3-flavor framework, if confirmed they would prove the existence of new physics beyond the Standard Model. The simplest fix would be to introduce a sterile neutrino νs with the mass in the eV ballpark, in which case MiniBooNE would be observing the νμνsνe oscillation chain. With the recent MiniBooNE update the evidence for the electron neutrino appearance increased to 4.8σ, which has stirred some commotion on Twitter and in the blogosphere. However, I find the excitement a bit misplaced. The anomaly is not really new: similar results showing a 3.8σ excess of νe-like events were already published in 2012.  The increase of the significance is hardly relevant: at this point we know anyway that the excess is not a statistical fluke, while a systematic effect due to underestimated backgrounds would also lead to a growing anomaly. If anything, there are now less reasons than in 2012 to believe in the sterile neutrino origin the MiniBooNE anomaly, as I will argue in the following.

What has changed since 2012? First, there are new constraints on νe appearance from the OPERA experiment (yes, this OPERA) who did not see any excess νe in the CERN-to-Gran-Sasso νμ beam. This excludes a large chunk of the relevant parameter space corresponding to large mixing angles between the active and sterile neutrinos. From this point of view, the MiniBooNE update actually adds more stress on the sterile neutrino interpretation by slightly shifting the preferred region towards larger mixing angles...  Nevertheless, a not-too-horrible fit to all appearance experiments can still be achieved in the region with Δm^2~0.5 eV^2 and the mixing angle sin^2(2θ) of order 0.01.     

Next, the cosmological constraints have become more stringent. The CMB observations by the Planck satellite do not leave room for an additional neutrino species in the early universe. But for the parameters preferred by LSND and MiniBooNE, the sterile neutrino would be abundantly produced in the hot primordial plasma, thus violating the Planck constraints. To avoid it, theorists need to deploy a battery of  tricks (for example, large sterile-neutrino self-interactions), which makes realistic models rather baroque.

But the killer punch is delivered by disappearance analyses. Benjamin Franklin famously said that only two things in this world were certain: death and probability conservation. Thus whenever an electron neutrino appears in a νμ beam, a muon neutrino must disappear. However, the latter process is severely constrained by long-baseline neutrino experiments, and recently the limits have been further strengthened thanks to the MINOS and IceCube collaborations. A recent combination of the existing disappearance results is available in this paper.  In the 3+1 flavor scheme, the probability of a muon neutrino transforming into an electron  one in a short-baseline experiment is
where U is the 4x4 neutrino mixing matrix.  The Uμ4 matrix elements controls also the νμ survival probability
The νμ disappearance data from MINOS and IceCube imply |Uμ4|≼0.1, while |Ue4|≼0.25 from solar neutrino observations. All in all, the disappearance results imply that the effective mixing angle sin^2(2θ) controlling the νμνsνe oscillation must be much smaller than 0.01 required to fit the MiniBooNE anomaly. The disagreement between the appearance and disappearance data had already existed before, but was actually made worse by the MiniBooNE update.
So the hypothesis of a 4th sterile neutrino does not stand scrutiny as an explanation of the MiniBooNE anomaly. It does not mean that there is no other possible explanation (more sterile neutrinos? non-standard interactions? neutrino decays?). However, any realistic model will have to delve deep into the crazy side in order to satisfy the constraints from other neutrino experiments, flavor physics, and cosmology. Fortunately, the current confusing situation should not last forever. The MiniBooNE photon background from π0 decays may be clarified by the ongoing MicroBooNE experiment. On the timescale of a few years the controversy should be closed by the SBN program in Fermilab, which will add one near and one far detector to the MicroBooNE beamline. Until then... years of painful experience have taught us to assign a high prior to the Standard Model hypothesis. Currently, by far the most plausible explanation of the existing data is an experimental error on the part of the MiniBooNE collaboration.