College News

UA Physicists Share in Breakthrough Prize

From the January 2016 Desktop News | A team of University of Alabama physicists recently received recognition for making key contributions to a landmark study of neutrinos that won the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

The $3 million prize, which was divided between five international teams, celebrates a series of experiments demonstrating that neutrinos—neutral subatomic particles and fundamental constituents of matter—have mass and that they change character as they travel through space. Before this work, neutrinos were believed to be massless.

Two professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dr. Andreas Piepke and Dr. Jerry Busenitz, as well as former UA postdoctoral assistant Dr. Evgueni Yakushev and former UA graduate students Zelimir Djurcic, Dong-Ming Mei, and Kevin McKinny, participated in the project and share in the prize. They collaborated with the KamLAND team, which is based in Hida, Japan.

“The collaboration was quite large,” Busenitz said. “It’s difficult to imagine doing this experiment 30 or 40 years ago. This was a collaboration of over 100 physicists, engineers, and technicians building and operating a large complex detector and analyzing extremely large datasets. Forty years ago, that would have been very difficult using the means of communication and computing technologies available then.”

“The main contributions of the UA group were to minimize and control the backgrounds to the neutrino signal due to radioactivity and to calibrate the detector response to neutrinos,” Busenitz said.

The Breakthrough Prize is a new award as of 2012. It specifically targets life sciences and mathematics projects that, according to the award’s website, “ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations.” These physicists’ questions have transformed their field.

“The results of these experiments and others demonstrate that these particles can change character while they’re traveling,” Piepke said. “That is of profound importance for our understanding of particle physics.”