Science Interviews


Tue, 13th Oct 2015

Neutrino Nobel Prize for physics

Dr Andrew Pontzen, University College London

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Andrew Pontzen reveals who was awarded the Novel Prize for physics, and discusses The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO)what it really takes to win...

Andrew - The Nobel Prize in physics has this week been awarded to particle physicist Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald. So, for those of us who haven't yet managed to get that winning phone call from Sweden, what should we learn from this announcement? First, be patient. The work that has been rewarded this week was mainly carried out 20 years ago. It was all about working out what's going on with neutrinos Ė little tiny bundles of energy that are incredibly hard to detect. The existence of neutrinos had been predicted in the 1930s to make sense of nuclear reactions. But they werenít actually first detected until 20 years later in the 1950s. The Nobel Prize committee finally got around to rewarding just that very first detection, a full 40 years later in the 1990s. Second, itís great to be competitive. The work being recognised by this prize was carried out by two completely separate teams. Takaaki Kajitaís team worked on the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan and reckoned the best way to study neutrinos was to use the stream of them produced by cosmic rays striking the Earthís atmosphere. Whereas Arthur McDonaldís team working on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada was instead studying neutrinos naturally produced by the nuclear reactions in the sun. Both experiments saw hints that neutrinos suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. There are actually supposed to be three different types of neutrino, but the results from the two experiments only made sense if each neutrino changes its mind from time to time as to what type it is. So, at any given moment, you could say, ďOkay, this neutrino is an electron neutrinoĒ, but you look again and after a while itís turned into a tiny neutrino. Itís all very strange and so itís the kind of thing that you wouldnít really believe from one experiment alone. But the real lesson is to make sure that you are the boss. These are complicated experiments. The papers announcing the discoveries have around 200 authors on them but only the boss from each team has been recognised. So, even if you are involved in the next Nobel winning discovery, chances are, it won't actually be you getting the prize...


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