UW News

November 19, 2015

After Nobel win, neutrino endeavors snag Breakthrough Prize in Physics

UW News

Neutrinos may be small, but when it comes to prizes, they pack quite a punch.

In October, it was announced that two scientists who headed international projects to study these miniscule, seemingly ephemeral subatomic particles will share the Nobel Prize in Physics. On Nov. 8, these same scientists joined five of their colleagues from other neutrino projects to accept the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Physics. The $3 million prize will be shared among the over 1,300 scientists, including University of Washington researchers, who participated in these years-long efforts to understand neutrinos.

UW scientists contributed to three of these projects. Physics professor Hamish Robertson led the team of UW scientists with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, while Jeffrey Wilkes headed UW efforts with the Super-Kamiokande and K2K/T2K collaborations, which were both based in Japan. Wilkes was also a U.S. co-spokesperson for K2K, while Robertson served the same role for the Sudbury experiments. The prize also honored the KamLAND project in Japan and Daya Bay in China.

All of these endeavors explored the fundamental properties of neutrinos, which are among the smallest and most mysterious of fundamental particles that make up the universe. They can form when particles collide or undergo decay, and are the second most common particle in the universe, after photons. But scientists struggled for decades to understand whether neutrinos have mass and gather other basic information about them. Experiments at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and Super-Kamiokande in particular showed that neutrinos have mass and can oscillate among three different “flavors.” The K2K and T2K experiments have verified these oscillations and studied them in greater detail.

In addition to Robertson and Wilkes, dozens of UW professors, researchers and graduate students from the Department of Physics worked on these experiments over the years, including the late professor Kenneth Young, who began the UW’s involvement with Super-Kamiokande.

This is the third year that the prize — founded by Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, Cathy Zhang, Yuri Milner, Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan — was presented at a Silicon Valley ceremony. Prizes were also presented for achievement in life sciences and mathematics.