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‘The future is bright for neutrino physics’

December 16, 2017

LEAD — Lead loves neutrinos, so when Nobel Day featured speaker Dr. John Wilkerson stated, “The future is bright for neutrino physics,” it was music to the audience’s ears.

More than 40 people showed up to Nobel Day Thursday at the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center to join Wilkerson in celebrating the elusive particle’s place in the universe.

“I am really honored to be asked to speak,” Wilkerson said. “I was really pleased to see so many local people talking about, interested in, and celebrating the science community. Talking, getting questions from people – it’s really fun.”

Wilkerson spoke of his experience, early in his career, working with two researchers who would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics: Ray Davis Jr. (2002), whose research took place at the Homestake Mine, and Art McDonald (2015), who led the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) collaboration in Canada.

“Working with Ray and Art, both outstanding scientists, was a great experience and honor,” Wilkerson said. “Ray was soft-spoken, but passionate about physics and his research. He would always take the time to engage with the young collaborators. In directing the SNO experiment, Art exemplified leadership and collegiality. He valued each collaborator and their contributions, and had the special knack to communicate this respect and appreciation. I strive to follow their examples in my own research program.”

Both were recognized for their work in neutrino research.

Wilkerson discussed his work with the two trailblazing researchers, as well as why researchers go underground to study the sun.

“Ray Davis was a real gentleman,” Wilkerson said. “He was very soft spoken, very polite. Now, would you think of a person like that as a risk taker? He was innovative, setting out to measure solar neutrinos.”

Wilkerson said the SNO Collaboration took science underground to a new level in an ultra-clean environment.

“It was an enormous amount of fun doing this experiment,” Wilkerson said, adding that the collaboration’s findings showed that neutrinos have new properties. “They aren’t massless and that opened up many questions ... The fact that neutrinos have mass opens up many new possibilities.”

Wilkerson has first-hand knowledge of this topic, as he is the principal investigator for the Majorana Demonstrator Project, which is seeking to discover whether the neutrino is its own antiparticle.

If it is, it could explain the imbalance of matter/antimatter in the universe. But finding such a rare physics event requires an extremely quiet environment. So, not only did the collaboration build its experiment nearly a mile underground at Sanford Lab, it built a six-layered shield to keep out the radiation that naturally occurs in rock, bananas and even people.

Wilkerson is the John R. and Louise S. Parker Distinguished Professor and the Director of the Institute for Cosmology, Subatomic Matter, and Symmetries in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina. He is also involved in the recently formed Large Enriched Germanium Experiment for Neutrinoless Double Beta Decay (LEGEND) Collaboration, the Karlsruhe tritium beta-decay neutrino mass experiment (KATRIN) and the Helium and Lead Observatory (HALO) supernovae detector experiment. He was a co-recipient of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics that was awarded to five experiments for investigating neutrino oscillations, including the SNO solar neutrino experiment where he served as the leader of the data acquisition group and was involved in the development and deployment of the SNO 3He detector array.

Following in the footsteps of his award-winning collaborating predecessors, recently, the Majorana Collaboration made a big announcement: Their experiment was quiet enough to justify building a much larger next-generation experiment.

“When we started this project, there were many risks and no guarantee that we could achieve our goals, as we were pushing into unexplored territory,” Wilkerson said. “It’s very exciting to see these world-leading results. We’ve achieved the best energy resolution of any double-beta decay experiment and are amongst the lowest backgrounds ever seen.”

Wilkerson said the experiment’s success “is a culmination of the collective efforts of all of the Majorana collaborators. This would not have been possible without the outstanding support of the SURF science and operations staffs. I’m extremely appreciative of everyone’s contributions that helped bring us to this point.”

Sanford Underground Research Facility Communications Director Constance Walter said this is the second time Nobel Day has been held.

“Through Nobel Day, we try to communicate the value of fundamental research and what makes certain discoveries Nobel-Prize worthy,” Walter said.

“It’s the journey that’s the fun part,” Wilkerson said. “You never know where that journey is going to take you.”

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