FORT COLLINS – Colorado State University physicists have shared in the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, awarded Nov. 8 to an international research experiment that’s pushing the boundaries of particle physics.
The $3 million Breakthrough Prize was awarded jointly to five international collaborations that contributed key discoveries about a sub-atomic particle called the neutrino, which is the most abundant known matter particle in the universe. CSU physics professors Walter Toki and Robert J. Wilson, along with their teams of students and postdoctoral researchers, work on the T2K Collaboration, which shared in the prize.
T2K is an accelerator-based neutrino experiment in Japan. The discovery of neutrino oscillation was the subject of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, and the T2K experiment is continuing that work.
“This particle can pass easily through any material, even entire planets, and is produced in vast quantities in the sun, nuclear reactors, the rocks around us and even in some of the food we eat,” Wilson said. But more importantly, the neutrino is thought to have played a major role in the balance of matter and anti-matter in the early universe, which allowed galaxies and life as we know it to form.
The CSU team, led by Toki, helped to design, build and operate the T2K experiment in Japan. The experiment combines a particle accelerator and neutrino detector on the east coast of Japan, with a 10-story water tank detector a kilometer deep in a mine near the country’s west coast.
“In our experiment, we showed for the first time the astonishing quantum property that a neutrino of one type could appear in a beam where originally there was only a different type – it had somehow transformed on its 300-kilometer journey,” Toki said.
Wilson explains that these results led to the formation of an international team of more than 700 scientists and engineers for the next-generation Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). DUNE recently received phase 1 approval from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It is tremendously exciting to see T2K awarded one of the 2016 Breakthrough Prizes,” said Assistant Professor of Physics Norm Buchanan, until recently a member of the T2K collaboration, now on the NOvA neutrino experiment and a project manager for DUNE. “It has been an amazing year for the neutrino!”
T2K’s citation was for the observation of electron neutrino appearance in the muon neutrino beam. The collaboration has included more than 500 members from 64 institutions in 12 countries. It is hosted jointly by the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) and the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo (ICRR).
The award was presented to Koichiro Nishikawa of Kyoto University, leader of the T2K experiment, at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The ceremony was broadcast live Nov. 8 in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel, and was hosted by comedian Seth Macfarlane. A one-hour encore of the broadcast is scheduled to air on Fox on Nov. 29, 7 p.m. EST.