Why This Year’s Nobel Prize In Physics Matters
Major advances in neutrino research could someday mean big changes for the way we live our lives.
image via (cc) flickr user caseorganic
Contrary (or, at least, in addition to) what those of us raised on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons might think, “Neutrinos” are not fun-loving partiers fleeing persecution from Dimension X. In fact, they’re something even stranger: Part of the fundamental particulate structure of our universe. And while there is still much we don’t know about these inherently bizarre particles, recent advances by scientists Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald–the just-announced winners of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics–have begun to shed light on both what neutrinos really are, and how they could someday play a role in our everyday lives.
First, a brief primer: What is a Neutrino?
Got that? Tiny, nearly-weightless particles with some weird physical properties, that are created by atomic reactions.
So, why does Kajita and McDonald’s shared Nobel Prize win matter? Put simply, each scientist’s research (Dr. Kajita focused on neutrinos formed in the reaction between cosmic rays and Earth’s atmosphere, while Dr. McDonald studied neutrinos created by our sun) helped demonstrate that neutrinos are able to change between electron, muon, and tau “flavors,” or fundamental states. This, in turn, showed that however insignificant their mass may be, neutrinos do have some form of “weight” to them. As the Nobel prize committee wrote in their release announcing this year’s prize:
“For particle physics [the existence of neutrino mass] was a historic discovery. Its Standard Model of the innermost workings of matter had been incredibly successful, having resisted all experimental challenges for more than twenty years. However, as it requires neutrinos to be massless, the new observations had clearly showed that the Standard Model cannot be the complete theory of the fundamental constituents of the universe.”
In other words, by proving that neutrinos can change their fundamental states, thereby necessitating mass, Kajita and McDonald have dramatically shifted our understanding of the second-most populous (after photons, claims the Nobel Prize committee) particle in the universe. Based on this new insight into neutrino properties, scientists believe neutrinos could be used to observe and understand deep-space phenomena like supernova, the light from which could otherwise be obscured by cosmic debris. Beyond that, however, the more we understand neutrinos, the more we might be able to put these ephemeral bits of particulate matter to good use for ourselves, right here on Earth.
image via (cc) flickr user futureatlas.com
Since neutrinos are able to move through matter almost entirely unimpeded, researchers believe there may be ways to harness them in order to send communications through the Earth’s core (as opposed to bouncing through satellites and cables around the planet’s curve) or scan for oil deposits and other subterranean minerals. And, since neutrinos are formed as a result of atomic reactions, they may even be ways to use them to detect illicit nuclear material. We’re not there yet, but doctors Kajita and McDonald’s discoveries offers a tremendous step in that direction.
In that respect, this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics is for both work done, as well as work yet to come., Kajita and McDonald’s discovery is just the beginning of a whole new field of research, which opens the door for future studies into the nature of this mysterious particulate substance. As the Prize committee writes: “New discoveries about [neutrinos] deepest secrets are expected to change our current understanding of the history, structure and future fate of the universe.”