Canadian Arthur McDonald shares Nobel Prize in physics for work on neutrinos

A professor emeritus at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. — the former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in northern Ontario — is a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on tiny particles known as neutrinos.

A professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. — the former director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in northern Ontario — is a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on tiny particles known as neutrinos.

Arthur McDonald was roused from sleep at about 5 a.m. on Tuesday by a phone call from the Nobel Prize committee telling him the news.

“I was a little surprised,” he said in a telephone interview from Kingston, laughing with joy. “I am overwhelmed, but excited.”

The first thing the 72-year-old did as a Nobel Prize winner was hug his wife.

“Thank you,” he told her.

McDonald and Japanese scientist Takaaki Kajita were cited for the discovery of neutrino oscillations and their contributions to experiments showing that neutrinos change identities.

“We were also able to determine that neutrinos do have a small mass and that’s something that wasn’t known before and it helps to place neutrinos in the laws of physics at a very fundamental level,” McDonald said.

“So it’s very fundamental in terms of understandting how the world works at a very microscopic level.”

The Nobel Prize committee was impressed.

“The discovery has changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the award early Tuesday.

Even McDonald’s colleagues were caught off guard by the announcement. By mid-day Tuesday, Tony Noble, a physicist at Queen’s University and associate director of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, said they were scrambling to put together a party to celebrate the big news.

“This is just incredible and it validates all the incredible work that is being done at the (neutrino lab in Sudbury),” Noble said.

McDonald said being named by the committee is a “very daunting experience, needless to say.”

“Fortunately, I have many colleagues as well who share this prize with me.”

McDonald said they have put in a “tremendous amount of work” and that he benefited from having a “very friendly collaboration among scientists from Canada, the United States, Britain and Portugal.”

He also explained that the work could only have been performed in Canada.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a collaborative effort by six Canadian universities, is situated two kilometres underground at a working nickel mine in Sudbury, Ont. The group was able to borrow $300 million worth of heavy water — used in the country’s Candu nuclear reactors — for 10 years for just $1 from Atomic Energy Canada Limited, McDonald explained.

That amount of heavy water, McDonald said, allowed their group the ability to discover different “flavours” of neutrinos in the giant detector they built.

“We were able to observe once per hour a neutrino from the sun because we were able to shield out, in this underground location, all of the other radioactive particles coming from outer space and just observe neutrinos,” he said.

McDonald said there was a “eureka moment” when they discovered that neutrinos were able to change from one type to another in travelling from the sun to the Earth.

A native of Sydney, N.S., McDonald studied at Dalhousie University in Halifax in the mid-60s and later at the California Institute of Technology. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2006.

McDonald and Kajita, the director of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research and professor at the University of Tokyo, will split the prize money, the equivalent of about $1.3 million Cdn.

Kajita seemed flummoxed at a news conference organized by his university. “My mind has gone completely blank,” he said after taking the stage. “I don’t know what to say.”

After getting his composure back, he stressed that many people had contributed to his work, and that there was much work still to do.

“The universe where we live in is still full of unknowns,” he said. “A major discovery cannot be achieved in a day or two. It takes a lot of people and a long time. I would like to see young people try to join our pursuit of mystery-solving.”

Neutrinos are minuscule particles created in nuclear reactions, such as in the sun and the stars.

For decades the neutrino remained a hypothetical particle until American researchers proved that it was real in 1956.

There are three kinds of neutrinos, and the laureates showed they oscillate from one type to another, dispelling the long-held notion that they were massless. Kajita showed in 1998 that neutrinos captured at the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan underwent a metamorphosis in the atmosphere, the academy said.

Three years later, in Canada, while working at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, McDonald found that neutrinos coming from the sun also switched identities.

“A far-reaching conclusion of the experiments is that the neutrino, for a long time considered to be massless, must have mass,” the academy said.

McDonald said that scientists would still like to know the actual masses of the various forms of neutrino. And ongoing experiments are delving into whether there are other types of neutrinos beyond the three clearly observed.

The idea that neutrinos could transform from one type into another was first put forward by the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo in the late 1950s, but scientists’ understanding of the process was rather vague until Kajita announced his discovery in 1998, said Antonio Ereditato, director of the Albert Einstein Center for Fundamental Physics at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

“This was a big shock because he proved in a statistically significant manner … that neutrinos oscillate,” said Ereditato. “Then Art McDonald explored another channel using solar neutrinos. It came after Kajita but he also proved neutrino oscillation in another channel. The two deserved this award.”

Neutrinos are the second-most abundant particles in the universe after photons, “so any property of neutrinos can have dramatic repercussions on the life of the universe and on its evolution,” he said. “This is really one of the milestones in our understanding of nature.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Rebels forward Jayden Grubbe is one of three Rebels on the NHL Central Scouting players to watch list for the 2021 NHL Draft. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Rebels seek consistency ahead of matchup with Hitmen

The Red Deer Rebels had to deal with a pang of regret… Continue reading

Quinn Mason died from an opioid overdose at the age of 23 in June 2020. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta mother whose son died from overdose advocates for ‘change’

It’s been about nine months since her son died from an overdose,… Continue reading

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday that the province was ready to move forward with Phase 2A and B in the coming weeks. (Photo by Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier)
Majority of Albertans to receive first shot before June 30: Shandro

Shandro says all Albertans should be offered the COVID-19 vaccine by June 30

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged that Friday would be one year since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three more Red Deer COVID-19 deaths, 331 active cases in Alberta

Red Deer is down to 362 active cases of the virus

Alberta’s Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer spoke on Thursday by webinar to Red Deer Chamber of Commerce members. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Alberta’s economic diversification is already underway, says Jobs Minister

From the geothermal to the TV industry, new jobs will be created, said Doug Schweitzer

Bryson, six, and Mara, eight, play with puppies from Dogs With Wings Saturday. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
WATCH: Dogs With Wings introduces Red Deer program

A program that trains puppies to be certified service, autism, facility and… Continue reading

Quebec Premier François Legault chairs a virtual news conference Thursday, March 4, 2021 in Montreal. The premiers from the left are: John Horgan, B.C.; Jason Kenney, Alberta; Scott Moe, Saskatchewan; Legault, Quebec; Brian Pallister, Manitoba; Doug Ford, Ontario; and Blaine Higgs, New Brunswick. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Premiers reiterate demand for $28-billion increase in health transfers from Ottawa

Premiers reiterate demand for $28-billion increase in health transfers from Ottawa

The Edmonton Law Courts building is shown on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. An Alberta pastor accused of holding Sunday services that violated COVID-19 rules is appealing his bail conditions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Jailed Alberta pastor should be able to lead services until his trial: lawyer

Jailed Alberta pastor should be able to lead services until his trial: lawyer

Seniors arrive for their COVID-19 vaccination at a clinic in Olympic Stadium in Montreal on March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Premiers blame Ottawa for delayed COVID-19 shots; Ontario pharmacies to offer jabs

Premiers blame Ottawa for delayed COVID-19 shots; Ontario pharmacies to offer jabs

Actors, clockwise from left, Luke Bilyk, Aislinn Paul, Alex Steeler, Melinda Shankar, Annie Clark, Jordan Todosey, Jahmil French and Munro Chambers from "Degrassi: The Next Generation," are shown at a screening event, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, N.J. Friends of French say he was a gifted 'true artist' who 'wanted to be great'THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/StarPix, Dave Allocca
Friends of Jahmil French say he was a gifted ‘true artist’ who ‘wanted to be great’

Friends of Jahmil French say he was a gifted ‘true artist’ who ‘wanted to be great’

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, rioters storm the Capitol, in Washington. At least 10 Ohioans have been charged in connection with the deadly insurrection at the U.S Capitol after being identified through social media and surveillance footage to the FBI. The group includes people linked to the Oath Keepers militia group who have been indicted on charges that they planned and coordinated with one another in the attack. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Capitol Police chief appeals for National Guard to stay

Capitol Police chief appeals for National Guard to stay

People gather on high ground and check for any sign of a tsunami near Whangarei, New Zealand, Friday, March 5, 2021. A powerful magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand prompting thousands of people to evacuate and triggering tsunami warnings across the South Pacific. (Karena Cooper/New Zealand Herald via AP)
Powerful quake hits off New Zealand, prompting evacuations

Powerful quake hits off New Zealand, prompting evacuations

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 file photo, students discard food at the end of their lunch period as part of a lunch waste composting program at an elementary school in Connecticut. A United Nations report released on Thursday, March 4, 2021 estimates 17% of the food produced globally each year is wasted. That amounts to 931 million tons of food, or about double what researchers believed was being wasted a decade ago. And most of the waste — or 61% — happens in households, while food service accounts for 26% and retailers account for 13%. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)
7% of food production globally wasted, UN report estimates

7% of food production globally wasted, UN report estimates

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wedneday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Efficacy figures of COVID-19 vaccines don’t tell the whole story: experts

Efficacy figures of COVID-19 vaccines don’t tell the whole story: experts

Most Read