Physics team named to prestigious Breakthrough Prize

By Costa Maragos Posted: November 10, 2015 1:00 p.m.

Three members of the team shown here (l-r) Dr. Mauricio Barbi, Anezka Kolaceke and Dr. Ted Mathie.
Three members of the team shown here (l-r) Dr. Mauricio Barbi, Anezka Kolaceke and Dr. Ted Mathie. Photo by Rae Graham - U of R Photography.

A team from the U of R’s Physics Department is in some star-studded company.

The seven-member team collaborated with physicists from around the world to win the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

They will get a small share of the $3 million (US) prize, donated by Yuri Milner from Russia, one of the prize founders and funders.

The Breakthrough Prize celebrates “the men and women who are driving the world’s most significant scientific advances, and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

The awards ceremony was held at the NASA Ames Centre in California and broadcast live on National Geographic Channel in the U.S. The show was hosted by Seth MacFarlane and brought together scientists and celebrities, including Facebook CEO Mark Zukerburg, actors Russell Crowe and Hilary Swank and musicians Christina Aguilerra and Pharrell Williams.

Check out the show highlights here.

The U of R team was not at the big show, but the members are thrilled they are part of this special win.

“I was very happy when I heard the news that we won,” says Dr. Mauricio Barbi, associate professor of Physics and U of R project leader. “It was a lot of work that we all put towards this. It is a big recognition.”

More than 1,300 people from 64 institutions in 12 countries had a hand in the award winning experiments. The U of R team consisted of:   

-Dr. Mauricio Barbi; U of R team leader
-Dr. Ted Mathie, Professor Emeritus (Physics)
-Dr. Roman Tacik, adjunct professor and scientist at the TRIUMF lab.
-Dr. Nick Hastings, post doctoral fellow
-Caio Licciardi, PhD student
-Spencer Giffin, PhD student
-Anezka Kolaceke, master’s student

The prize was awarded “for the fundamental discovery of neutrino oscillations, revealing a new frontier beyond, and possible far beyond, the standard model of particle physics.”

If neutrinos sound familiar, it could be because in October, 2015, Dr. Art McDonald of Queen’s University won his Nobel prize in physics for his contribution to research into neutrinos. Dr. McDonald is one of the physicists named to the Breakthrough Award, which more realistically rewards the collaborative nature of important scientific breakthroughs.

Each of the award members participated in two neutrino oscillation discoveries – one from last year and another from 2011.

“Our group at the U of R was instrumental in the construction of the fine grained detector used in the experiment and continues to play a leading role in the calibration and running of the experiment, development of data reconstruction algorithms and in the analysis of the collected data," says Dr. Barbi.

While a handful of team leaders elsewhere will receive the bulk of the prize money, about $1 million will be split among most of the people who worked on project. That works out to about $500 (US) per physicist.

“The money is the least important factor here. Rather, the recognition of all the work done by the entire team is, by far, the most relevant aspect of this award,” says Dr. Barbi. “Unlike the Nobel prize, this award truly recognizes the critical importance of collaboration. This was a collaborative effort, among our U of R team and most impressively by teams from around the world that came together. It was an amazing experience, personally and professionally.”

Aside from the U of R, four other universities in Canada contributed to the project, as well as TRIUMF, Canada’s national lab for particle physics.

The experiments were supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The Department of Physics offers graduate students and faculty members opportunities to pursue their research locally and globally.

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