09 November 2015

A Neutrino Buzz in the Air

Today is a special day for those who have been working in the area of neutrino oscillations.

We were still celebrating the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize to Drs Art McDonald and Takaaki Kajita, who are leaders of the SNO and Super-K experiments respectively—it is a fantastic feeling to know that colleagues in the area of physics we study have been recognised in one of the most visible ways possible.

But a different award was announced today—or rather on the evening of Sunday 8th November in California where a flashy presentation ceremony was held, with Seth Macfarlane as the host—the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

From the official announcement page:
The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to be Awarded to Seven Leaders and 1370 Members of Five Experiments Investigating Neutrino Oscillation: Daya Bay (China); KamLAND (Japan); K2K / T2K (Japan); Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (Canada); and Super-Kamiokande (Japan)"
The Nobel Prize is famously awarded to up to only three individuals per prize, and there is always much discussion before and after as to who ought to receive the prize, and, inevitably, who missed out unfairly. There is usually no controversy about whether the actual recipients deserved their prizes, but there are cases where many of us feel that it would have been fairer to relax the three-winner requirement a little, a constraint that was only officially introduced in the late 1960s.

One of the many differences between the Nobel Prize and the Breakthrough Prize is that the latter not only allows more than three people to win the prize, but that it acknowledges the important role that collaborative work plays in modern science. Therefore, the $3M prize goes not just to the top few leaders of an experiment (although such leaders are also recognised explicitly; with seven physicists in this year's case being honoured his way), but is shared by all those who worked together to produce the seminal journal papers in which these experiments reported their findings.

At Imperial, we are delighted that many past and present HEP group members are laureates for the T2K experiment, and as it happens I also receive the prize for my work with KamLAND when at Stanford University.

In our field, collaborations can be all-consuming parts of our lives; in the early days of T2K, I vividly remember my colleagues working day and night, week after week, to help design the detectors we would be building, and long hours spent in the lab, testing and assembling detector components; we would discuss and argue over and over again about how best to do things, and toiled to make sure that the fruits of our work in 2005 would still be worthwhile in 2015 (and now, we are hoping they will continue to be useful in 2025).

Collaborations can continue working together for many years, with individuals receiving their PhDs, becoming postdocs and obtaining academic positions, and generally growing old together, all while pursuing the same common goal—to make their experiment successful. Of course many people will move on to different things, be they jobs in industry or work at other experiments (and in new collaborations), but I think the bond between people who have worked on these experiments together during the most intense times is quite unique and long-lasting.

Today I received an email that was sent out to the roughly 100 prize recipients of the KamLAND Collaboration who worked on the papers from early 2000s where we demonstrated that neutrinos actually oscillate, rather than disappearing in other ways. The list of names on its own brings back memories to me of stressful, but also exhilarating, days and nights spent deep in a mine—in fact all of the experiments which received the prize today involve some kind of underground part to their set-ups—trying to get the experiment to perform as well as it needed to, and arguing over how to analyse the data. Yes, we do spend a lot of time arguing with each other!

Super-K and SNO, whose leaders received the Nobel Prize, showed definitively how neutrinos change identity as the travel; but one needs to put together the discoveries made by all five experiments which won the Breakthrough Prize to form the current picture that we have of neutrino oscillations, and it is an interesting distinction that has been made by the respective prize committees.

All the buzz that surrounds our field is made even more exciting by the fact that the discoveries we have made point to more possible progress in the next several years, and here at Imperial we are working on the future Hyper-K and LBNF/DUNE experiments as well as other neutrino projects, all as part of international collaborations. As proof of this, this month we are hiring three postdoctoral researchers (we are currently going through the selection process) to join the T2K and Hyper-K effort, and we hope that some of the new cohort of PhD students that have just arrived at Imperial will also join us (but that is up to them!).

So while these prizes do help us look back to savour the amazing physics discoveries that we have made in this field over the last couple of decades, it is the future that really excites us—not only in neutrinos, but in all the other areas in which we are building experiments that have the ability to make breakthrough discoveries that tell us more about the universe we live in.

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