Several faculty members with the Virginia Tech College of Science are part of two international groups to win 2016 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics for years-long projects involving the discovery and exploration of neutrino oscillations.

The Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation honored two separate projects worked on by four faculty members from the Department of Physics. Jonathan Link, Leo Piilonen, and Patrick Huber, all professors, are part of the China-based Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment. Honored for work made prior to coming to Virginia Tech is Camillo Mariani, an assistant professor who is a member of the Japanese-led team heading the KEK to Kamioka Long Baseline Neutrino Oscillation Experiments, or K2K, for short.

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, according to organizers, “recognizes major insights into the deepest questions of the Universe.” It is part of several Breakthrough awards honoring achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics. Among the awards’ high-profile sponsors are Google co-founder Sergey Brin; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner; and Chinese businessman chairman Jack Ma.

“All of us at the College of Science are delighted with this honor won by our faculty,” said Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science. “The Breakthrough Prize describes the award as honoring scientists who are seeking new ‘insights into the deepest questions of the Universe.’ The scientists in our faculty are doing exactly that, cracking the puzzles of what lays beyond our vision, where we came from, where we are going, and what is the limit of possible. We are proud of our faculty’s collaborative work with their colleagues around the world, and look forward to the team’s findings for years to come.”

The Breakthrough Prize committee selected a total of five winning teams in Fundamental Physics, honoring roughly 1,380 scientists and physicists from around the world “for the fundamental discovery and exploration of neutrino oscillations, revealing a new frontier beyond, and possibly far beyond, the standard model of particle physics.” Winners were chosen by selection committees comprised of prior Breakthrough Prize laureates. The awards are designed to generate excitement about science as a career.

All teams in the Fundamental Physics category will share in a $3 million prize, according to organizers.

Daya Bay

The prize for the Daya Bay team honors work from 2012 when Virginia Tech and its collaborators discovered a new type of neutrino oscillation – a third neutrino angle – during high-tech scientific experiments held near the Day Bay nuclear reactor facility in southern China. The experiments, carried out inside massive tunnels built near the plant, open new avenues for studying neutrinos – subatomic particles so infinitely small and so weakly interacting that most will pass through the entirety of the Earth as does light through glass. Initial work was carried out in late 2011 and early 2012, using six of a planned eight particle detectors placed in underground labs built within miles of the reactor, said Link.

“When we started this experiment, we knew that there would be competition and as we were building the detectors it became clear that the competition was getting close, so we decided to deploy the first six detectors and try to make a quick measurement,” said Link, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Neutrino Physics and the university’s leader on the Daya Bay project. “This plan worked and we were the first to report the discovery. After taking six months of data, we shutdown and installed the last two detectors, which allows us to accumulate data 33 percent faster.”

Virginia Tech’s Daya Bay team includes Yuen-Keung of Hong Kong, China, and Yue Meng of Harbin, China, who were doctoral students in 2012 and now are post-doctoral researchers at the University of Alabama, post-doctoral researcher Deb Mohapatra, and Jo Ellen Morgan, a lab technician on the project who earlier graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Virginia Tech.

Collaborating institutions include the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of California Berkeley, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and two dozen other groups from universities and labs in the United States, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The Daya Bay experiment continues to take data and more potential breakthroughs may follow, said Link. A new project involving Link and Virginia Tech’s physics department also is set to begin at another nuclear reactor facility in Belgium. Here, researchers hope to determine if theorized sterile neutrinos – hypothetical particles that interact even more weakly than all known neutrinos– indeed exist.


The Breakthrough board’s honoring of Japanese-led KEK to Kamioka Long Baseline Neutrino Oscillation Experiments, known as the K2K project that predated Daya Bay. Camillo Mariani worked on the project while at University of Rome, Sapienza, with his efforts focusing on electromagnetic calorimeters and neutrino cross-sections.

“The K2K was the first experiment to see neutrino oscillations from an accelerator produced beam of neutrinos” said Mariani. “The experiment confirmed neutrino oscillation through disappearance. … My work focused on the electromagnetic calorimeter for the near detector complex of K2K, analysis of the contamination of the anti-neutrinos in the beam -- few neutrinos of the wrong flavor are always produced from the pions and kaons decay -- and measurement of neutrino cross-sections.”

An edited television broadcast of the Breakthrough Awards ceremony is expected to air at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29, on Fox. It was originally broadcast live on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 8.


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