Neutrino Nobel Prize for physics

Is winning the Nobel Prize everything its cracked up to be?
13 October 2015

Interview with 

Dr Andrew Pontzen, University College London


Andrew Pontzen reveals who was awarded the Novel Prize for physics, and discusses 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 - 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 weren't 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, it's great to be competitive. The work being recognised by this prize was carried out by two completely separate teams. Takaaki Kajita's 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 Earth's atmosphere. Whereas Arthur McDonald's 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, "Okay, this neutrino is an electron neutrino", but you look again and after a while it's turned into a tiny neutrino. It's all very strange and so it's the kind of thing that you wouldn't 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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