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How a 'Jelly Doughnut' May Explain Why the Universe Exists

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Jason Detwiler's team uses Germanium in its search for neutrinoless double-beta decay, which Sound Effect has nicknamed, the "jelly doughnut."

Jason Detwiler is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Washington, and he’s on the hunt for a natural phenomenon that is insanely rare.

It's a specific reaction called neutrinoless double-beta decay -- a term so egg-headed that when he sat down to explain it to Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer, Gabriel made him give it a nickname: the “jelly doughnut.” (Perhaps Gabriel was hungry.)

There’s a good payoff for this hunt -- if Detwiler does find a "jelly doughnut," it may explain why the universe exists.

Based on the laws of physics as they’re understood now, all the stuff of the early universe should have eaten itself, leaving nothing. 

That’s because the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter.

“The universe is made up of matter, and we don’t see big pockets of antimatter. Because that would result in a big annihilation, and all of the antimatter would have destroyed all the matter and we wouldn't be here,” Detwiler said.

“There has to be some process somewhere in physics that we haven't discovered yet that allows for the creation of a slight excess of matter over antimatter. And this is where the neutrino comes in.”

Neutrinos are miniscule, invisible particles that stream through space (and us) all the time. The key might lie in neutrinos functioning as their own antimatter evil twin. 

How rare is the “jelly doughnut?” If you had 1000 atoms of the metal Germanium (the element Detwiler’s team uses), the amount of time it would take for half of them to undergo this interaction is approximately ten quadrillion times the age of the known universe.

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.