Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B McDonald won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics this morning for their work on neutrinos. Neutrinos are subatomic particles that bombard the Earth constantly, but they pass right through us. And everything else. They’re like ghosts, but incredibly tiny and a lot more common. Even the Ghost Hunters could probably find a neutrino. Identifying it…less likely.
Kajita and McDonald didn’t discover neutrinos. Clyde L. Cowan and Frederick Reines discovered neutrinos back in 1956 – a discovery honored by the Nobel committee in the 70s. Kajita and McDonald realized that neutrinos oscillate between three states. Why is this important?
Do you remember all those experiments being done at the bottom of mines? It was all the rage for awhile – and probably still is, but it doesn’t seem to come up in popular media nearly as frequently these days. Well, scientists were using all those deep tunnels to explore the inner workings of the universe, including neutrinos. And in the 1960s they found something shocking – there were about 1/3 of the neutrinos they were expecting to find. These neutrinos were created by the sun’s fusion reaction….oh dear god, our sun is dying. Cue the concern.
Kajita and McDonald pursued an alternate theory: that neutrinos weren’t completely massless and as such could oscillate between three states, two of which wouldn’t have been detected in the deep mine experiment of terror. And then they went and proved it. Because they are freakin’ geniuses. Seriously.
Their reward? Well, 72 year old McDonald was woken at 6:45am and told it was time to shine – call in to the Nobel Prize committee. Which looks like a particularly fancy lecture theatre from every University I’ve ever attended. It’s fine. The fancy ceilings are a nice touch, but really…
I’m convinced that the awards for the Nobel Prize should be more elaborate: look what we do for actors and sports stars. The people winning Nobel Prizes are pretty awesome. They’re kinda the people who make the world better. We should be anticipating the drama for weeks, wondering who’s going to win, only to have it all revealed in a star studded event. Not a bloody phone call before anyone is awake.
Oh, what – you want to argue that the staid sobriety of the award better represents scientists? Have you met scientists? You never had a prof that thought him or herself a rockstar? Scientists are just like everyone else and I’m sure they’d appreciate the pomp and ceremony. And, if your argument is that it’s the heritage of the award…the award was created by the Alfred Nobel. The inventor of dynamite. Wait, is it that almost a year later there is an awesome banquet? Screw your banquet. Your banquet is too late. That giddy moment when you realize you are the awesomest person in your field in the whole world? That’s the phone call. Not the banquet.
Anywhoo. Perhaps I need to let this go. It appears that Dr. Kajita is a far more modest and hilarious man than I would be were roles reversed. His comment on the award? “I need to thank the neutrinos, of course. And since neutrinos are created by cosmic rays, I want to thank them, too.”