BU Today

Science & Tech

BU Neutrino Researchers Share Global Physics Honor

Breakthrough Prize recognizes work on fundamental particle of the universe


Who’d have thought such a tiny thing could yield such a whopping prize? Thanks to their research into neutrinos, the subatomic particles from decaying radioactive elements, 16 past or current BU physicists will split $3 million with colleagues worldwide.

The money comes from the Breakthrough Prize, founded in 2012 by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan, and others to reward pathbreaking research in physics, mathematics, and life sciences. This year’s prize in fundamental physics went to 1,000-plus physicists working on five research projects, two of which included participation by BU’s Neutrino Group.

The two projects, based in Japan and named Super-Kamiokande and K2K/T2K, study neutrino oscillation, the process by which one type of neutrino changes into a different type. The discovery of oscillation, which cracked a decades-old mystery as to why neutrinos seemingly vanished as they traveled to Earth from space, earned one of Super-Kamiokande’s Japanese physicists a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics. Neutrinos are among what one university research site terms the “particle zoo,” the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

Four of the BU winners are still at the University: Ed Kearns, Lawrence Sulak, and James Stone, all physics professors at the College of Arts & Sciences, and Flor de Maria Blaszczyk, a CAS physics postdoctoral associate. The Breakthrough judges commended the winners “for the fundamental discovery and exploration of neutrino oscillations, revealing a new frontier beyond, and possibly far beyond, the standard model of particle physics.”

“The Super-K project was the first of all five…to reveal that neutrinos have mass,” says Kearns, lead investigator on that research. “The impact of that knowledge paved the way for many of the other experiments.…Even today, the impact is felt as T2K continues to unravel the mysteries of the neutrino, and future experiments are being planned that will take place over the next two decades.”

“The neutrino probably plays a unique and distinctive role in the universe,” he adds. “Its fingerprints may be present in the way matter came to overwhelm antimatter in the early universe and then came together to form galaxies, such as the one we live in today.”

The Super-Kamiokande project involves a detector, with 50,000 tons of water lined with 13,000 sensors, that is more than half a mile underground in a mine. It studies neutrons from a variety of sources, including cosmic rays, the sun, and supernovae.

K2K/T2K uses an accelerator to create “an intense beam” of neutrinos that are directed at the Super-Kamiokande detector 183 miles away. Universities from a dozen nations collaborate on the project.

BU’s Neutrino Group has contributed numerous authors to papers produced by the two projects since 1996, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

+ Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)