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Ghost Particle, The

Classroom Activity


Activity Summary
Students collect evidence to make inferences about an object hidden inside a sealed box.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • think critically and logically to raise questions.

  • identify questions that can be answered through investigation.

  • formulate and test hypotheses.

  • develop predictions and descriptions based on investigations.

Materials for each student
  • copy of the "Black Box Mystery" student handouts (PDF or HTML)

Materials for each team
  • box with unknown object inside

In 1930, Wolfgang Pauli postulated the existence of a small elementary particle with no charge and very little or no mass. He proposed this particle because scientists were measuring less energy after a process known as beta decay than before it occurred, conflicting with the law of conservation of energy. Pauli's new theoretical particle balanced the energy equation. (The particle was later named the neutrino in 1934 by Enrico Fermi.) Further studies showed that the neutrino was also necessary to maintain the conservation laws of momentum and spin. There are currently three known types, or "flavors," of neutrinos: electron, muon, and tau neutrinos.

Billions of neutrinos pass through Earth each second, but since they are particles with no electric charge and have very little mass, they only interact weakly with other kinds of matter and are difficult to detect. Scientists study neutrinos indirectly by looking at the results of their interactions with other forms of matter such as heavy water or chlorine.

To help students understand the size of subatomic particles, you may want to share the following chart with them and as a class develop a sample analogy regarding atomic sizes. (For example, one sample analogy would be "If an atom filled the distance from Boston to Cleveland, the nucleus would be about the length of a football field; a proton would be about the height of a three-story apartment building; and an electron and a subatomic particle called a quark would be about a centimeter wide, or the width of a blueberry.")

Atomic Scale

scale in meters

scale in 1016 meters

sample analogy




something 100,000,000 cm or 1,000,000 m
(distance from Boston to Cleveland)

nucleus of atom



something 10,000 cm or 100 m
(football field length)




something 1,000 cm or 10 m
(height of 3-story apartment building)

quark or electron



something about 1 cm such as a blueberry

Scientists have developed instruments to help them study subatomic particles, such as particle colliders and detectors. In this activity, students will experiment with what it is like to gain information about something they cannot physically see. Students will generate and test questions to try to identify an unseen object. Based on the evidence they gather, they will infer what is in their mystery box.

Key Terms

conservation of energy: States that the total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant.

conservation of mass: States that the products of a chemical reaction have the same total mass as that of the reactants.

lepton: A family of elementary matter (or antimatter) particles that includes the electrically charged electron, muon, and tau and their antimatter counterparts. The family also includes the electrically neutral electron-neutrino, muon-neutrino, and tau-neutrino and their antimatter counterparts.

neutrino: A lepton with very little mass and no electric charge.

particle: A subatomic object with a definite mass and charge. Currently known elementary matter particles are grouped into categories of quarks and leptons and their antimatter counterparts.

  1. Discuss how scientists sometimes collect evidence to infer the presence of objects they cannot see. Tell students that in this activity, they will collect evidence to make inferences about an object hidden inside a sealed box.

  2. Create each mystery box by placing a common classroom object (such as a roll of tape, scissors, or a beaker) inside a box and sealing it with tape or a rubber band.

  3. Set up a table that displays 10 to 15 common classroom objects, some of which are similar to or exactly the same as the objects in the mystery boxes. Provide additional empty boxes as well.

  4. Organize students into groups and distribute the "Black Box Mystery" student handout to each student and a mystery box to each group. Explain that the challenge is to design ways to gather information about a mystery object that students can't see or test directly.

  5. Point out that the mystery objects are similar to some of the objects on the display table. Students can use information they know about these objects to help them learn more about the unknown mystery objects.

  6. After they have completed the activity, have students compare the process of inferring the identity of a mystery object sealed in a box to inferring the existence and number of neutrinos detected by their effect on another substance. Then have groups consider how inference plays a role in their daily lives. Explore group answers in a whole-class discussion.

  7. As an extension, provide teams with a black box that has an object taped to the bottom of the box. Provide teams with skewers, rulers, pencils, and grid paper. Have teams measure their objects and draw them on grid paper. Ask whether measuring made the object easier to identify. Discuss how specific measurements sometimes help scientists better define things they cannot see.

Activity Answer

Students will design a variety of tests to gather information about the mystery object. For example, they might determine the weight of the object by comparing the weight of the mystery box to the weight of an empty box. They might shake the box and listen to the sound the object makes. Or they might try to determine the object's shape by the way it strikes different points of the box when shaken. They could then take a known object from the display table and put it through similar tests. Students might also rule out objects that are unlikely or impossible, such as objects that are too large to fit in the box.

If students arrive at immediate conclusions, direct them to return to the evidence by asking questions like How do you know that? Remind students to evaluate their inferences by comparing them to the evidence they've collected. Inferences that don't include all of the evidence are not necessarily wrong but may be less believable. Point out that there is a range of plausible explanations, some being more likely than others.

Discuss with students whether the real identity of the mystery object should be revealed. By not allowing students to see what the object is at the end, the focus of the activity remains not on getting the right answer but on developing plausible inferences, or conclusions, that are supported by evidence.

Student Handout Questions

  1. What inferences can you make about the object? List them on a separate sheet and include the evidence that supports them. Student answers will vary based on the tests they conducted.

  2. What situations in your daily life might call for inference? List the situations and the evidence you use to support those situations. Student answers will vary. One example of a daily life inference might involve inferring whether someone is in the bathroom. Evidence such as a closed door, the sound of running water, and a bathrobe missing from a sibling's bedroom could be used to infer that someone is in the bathroom.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—The Ghost Particle
Read seven steps to making a good science film, learn of two scientists who spent their careers searching for the solar neutrino, explore neutrino-hunting projects worldwide, and view a time line detailing the pursuit of the elusive particle.

How Do We Know Protons, Electrons, and Quarks Really Exist?

Suggests ways of addressing the existence of invisible particles.

Solving the Mystery of Missing Neutrinos
Describes how scientists solved the solar neutrino mystery.

What's a Neutrino?
Provides a detailed look at the history of neutrinos, along with in-depth reviews of the different experiments and devices used to detect neutrinos.


A Tour of the Subatomic Zoo: A Guide to Particle Physics
by Cindy Schwarz and Sheldon Glashow. American Institute of Physics, 1996.
Introduces the ideas, terminology, and techniques of high-energy physics and provides historical views of matter from the atom to the quark.

The World of Atoms and Quarks
by Albert Stwertka. Twenty-First Century Books, 1995.
Traces the history of atomic theory in physics and includes a guide to elementary particles.


The "Black Box Mystery" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 5-8
Science Standard A

Science as Inquiry
Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

Grades 9-12
Science Standard A

Science as Inquiry
Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

Classroom Activity Author

Tanya Gregoire has taught at Brookline Public Schools in Massachusetts and is coauthor of "Museum of Science Activities for Kids." This classroom activity originally appeared in the companion Teacher's Guide for NOVA's "Hunt for Alien Worlds" program.

Teacher's Guide
Ghost Particle, The

Video is not required for this activity
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