CU-Boulder Physicists Share 2016 Breakthrough Prize

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

November 13, 2015 – A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder is sharing the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics award announced this week for the discovery that neutrinos — shadowy subatomic particles that rarely interact with matter and zip through mountains, oceans, planets and even people — can shape-shift.

Actor Seth MacFarlane hosted the nationally televised event Sunday at the NASA Ames facility in Silicon Valley, California, where the prizes were announced. Actors Russell Crowe, Hillary Swank and Christina Aguilera also helped raise the profile of the scientific breakthroughs often relegated to scientific journals. The prizes, which totaled $22 million, included research in three areas: physics, mathematics and life sciences.

The $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is being shared by hundreds of collaborators around the world, including CU-Boulder Professors Eric D. Zimmerman and Alysia Marino, Postdoctoral Researchers Robert Johnson and Stephen Coleman, and graduate students Scott Johnson, Andrew Missert and Tianlu Yuan. All work at the Tokai to Kamioka (T2K) facility in Japan.

The CU-Boulder researchers helped the international team discover that the three types, or “flavors” of neutrinos — electron, muon and tau — can morph from one type to another as they whiz through space at nearly the speed of light. Produced by the sun, cosmic rays, supernovas, particle accelerators or nuclear reactors, neutrinos were once thought to be massless particles.

As part of the T2K experiment the CU-Boulder team built an instrument called a neutrino horn, which creates neutrino beams using a particle accelerator on the eastern coast of Japan. The horn uses 320,000 amps of electricity — more current than is used by 2,000 homes – to aim the intense beam of muon neutrinos through Earth toward the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector located inside a zinc mine 180 miles away on the opposite side of the country.

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

The Breakthrough Prize to T2K was specifically awarded for the observation that muon neutrinos can change into electron neutrinos as they travel Zimmerman said. A better understanding of neutrinos opens a new frontier beyond the “standard model” of high energy particle physics. The standard model is a theory that explains how the basic building blocks of matter interact via the the four fundamental forces: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force.

Marino also was a team member on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) experiments, one of the other physics collaborations cited in the Breakthrough Prize awards. “Our work at SNO was the first to demonstrate that electron neutrinos from the sun change to other flavors before reaching the Earth, helping to solve the 30-year-old mystery known as ‘the solar neutrino problem,’” said Marino.

The Breakthrough Prize awards were sponsored by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of the genetics company 23andMe; Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang; Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.