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'Sno' Researchers Win Inaugural NSERC Polanyi Award

November 15, 2006

Source: University of Guelph

A group of Canadian scientists — including several from the University of Guelph — are being honoured by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) today for their groundbreaking research on neutrinos.

Scientists from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) have been awarded the inaugural NSERC John C. Polanyi Award, NSERC president Suzanne Fortier announced in Sudbury. The $250,000 prize is named for the University of Toronto professor who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in reaction dynamics.

"We are very pleased to share in this wonderful recognition," said Guelph physics professor Jimmy Law, who, along with other Guelph researchers, has been involved with the SNO experiment since its inception.

Law was in Sudbury today representing the Guelph cohort. "We are part of a great team of international scientists whose hard work and dedication have made this project and subsequent discoveries possible."

SNO is a unique neutrino telescope that is the size of a 10-storey building. It’s located two kilometres beneath the earth in a nickel mine near Sudbury, making it the world’s deepest underground laboratory.

Guelph scientists were part of the original group helping with research and development and the construction of the SNO detector. They also helped design and construct SNO’s sophisticated instruments. In total, more than 130 researchers from 14 different universities and research labs in Canada, the United States and Great Britain are involved in the project.

The heart of SNO’s $100-million detector is the world’s largest acrylic vessel, holding 1,000 tonnes of heavy water on loan from Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. and worth an additional $330 million.

In contrast to its massive size, the detector is used to look for neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles that make up all matter in the universe. Neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect, because they can pass through most forms of matter easily. In fact, billions of neutrinos pass through people’s bodies every second with no noticeable effect.

SNO is the only facility in the world that can detect neutrinos accurately, thanks to the giant sphere filled with ultra-pure heavy water that contains heavy hydrogen. Neutrinos passing through break up the deuterium into a neutron and a proton, which is crucial to the measurement process.

In 2001, SNO researchers gained international recognition when they solved the mystery of solar neutrinos that had baffled scientists since the early 1970s: the discrepancy between the number of neutrinos observed and the previous predictions of theoretical models for the sun.

The researchers found that two-thirds of the electron-type neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions in the core of the sun change to other types of neutrinos – muon and tau neutrinos – before reaching Earth.

Further tests have confirmed those findings and later this month, SNO scientists plan to complete the neutrino measurements that they have been collecting data for over the past seven years. In addition to solving a 30-year-old scientific problem, the SNO measurements proved that the most basic laws of physics are incomplete.

U of G researchers were involved in both phases of data collection, and Law, a nuclear physicist, helped write and test the software used to analyze the data generated.

In addition to Law, U of G researchers involved in SNO are physics professor emeritus Robin Ollerhead, a member of the SNO collaboration since 1993; Prof. Bernie Nickel, who has served as a consultant; post-doctoral researcher Diane Reitzner; and PhD student Marc Beregvin.

"The world-class facilities at SNO, coupled with a community of top-notch physicists, have made Canada a global leader in the search for answers to some of the deepest mysteries of the universe," said Maxime Bernier, minister of industry and minister responsible for NSERC. "The success of these scientists is truly something in which Canadians can take great pride."

SNO’s underground lab pace is currently being expanded by 150 per cent, and a new surface building is being constructed. Once complete, it will be a world-class astrophysics facility called SNOLAB. Here, groups will develop, assemble and operate new experiments in particle physics. The expansion project is being funded by a $38.9-million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, with an additional $10.4 million in support coming from other granting agencies.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519 824- 4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, Ext. 56982.



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