UBC physicists share in $3M Breakthrough Prize

A photograph of the SNO showing an interior view of the neutrino detector structure. Source: Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Twenty-nine current and past UBC researchers will each take home a modest share of the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics announced yesterday at NASA Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California.

The high-profile Silicon-Valley funded award is being shared between five projects that have illuminated the nature of neutrinos, elusive subatomic particles produced inside the Sun. UBC researchers have been part of two of the five: the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) and Japan’s Tokai to Kamioka (T2K) Experiment.

“This has been a banner year for neutrino physics, with the Nobel Prize and now the Breakthrough Prize recognizing some beautiful and challenging experiments conducted over the last decade,” says  UBC researcher Scott Oser, who served as Canada’s point person on T2K and will also share in the prize as part of the SNO collaboration. “UBC is exceptional in having played key roles in two of the winning experiments.”

UBC contributed key elements of the neutrino detectors for both experiments as well as playing a leading role in analyzing data from each. In 2003, UBC joined the T2K experiment in Japan, which shoots an intense beam of neutrinos through the main island of Japan to study the beam's oscillations.

In 1988, UBC joined the SNO experiment in Sudbury, Ontario—designed to detect solar neutrinos through their interactions with a large tank of heavy water located two kilometres beneath the surface of the earth in a nickel mine. SNO proved that neutrinos produced inside the Sun change their type before being detected at Earth.

“Building the SNO detector was a two-decade emotional high-wire act,” says UBC physicist Chris Waltham, who led the university’s involvement in the project. "We had to really push the limits of radiochemistry, subatomic particle detection and materials science and go way off the map of the tried and true. There were several occasions when it looked like SNO would be a hugely expensive embarrassing disaster, that it would never work. But it did."

Current and past UBC researchers receiving a portion of the award are: Frank Berghaus, Sophie Berkman, Daniel Brook-Roberge, Tudor Costin, Salvador Gil, Simon Hastings, Chris Hearty, Jaret Heise, Blair Jamieson, Jiae Kim, Brian Kirby, Robert Komar, Thomas Kutter, Thomas Lindner, Mark McCarthy, Christian Nally, Hui-Siong Ng, Christine Nielsen, Scott Oser, Yevgeniy Petrov, Alan Poon, Shirin Sabouri, Hirohisa Tanaka, Shimpei Tobayama, Yaroslav Tserkvonyak, Tyron Tsui, Chris Waltham, Juergen Wendland, Reena Meijer Drees and Joanna Zalipska.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded in 2012 by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Yuri Milner and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The prizes aim to celebrate scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

Neutrinos are elusive subatomic particles produced inside the Sun, inside nuclear reactors, and by some radioactive decays. Extremely averse to interacting with regular matter, neutrinos can pass through solid rock without leaving a trace, and require extremely massive and sensitive detectors in order to be observed.  Discoveries by the five prize-winning experiments showed that neutrinos, previously believed massless, actually have very small but non-zero masses.

“This has been a banner year for neutrino physics, with the Nobel Prize and now the Breakthrough Prize recognizing some beautiful and challenging experiments conducted over the last decade.”

Alex Walls
Media Relations Specialist, UBC Media Relations