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Diego Maza Ozcoidi, , Professor and researcher of the department of Physics and Applied Mathematics of the University of Navarra

The fascination for the ethereal


Wed, 07 Oct 2015 15:01:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

I must begin by apologizing for the poetic licence of degree scroll. If I do so, it is because it probably reflects in some way the content of the paragraphs that follow. Thus, I believe that the fascination with the ethereal could well be used as an argument to describe the commitment and the grit that researchers like Drs. T. Kajita and AB MaDonald must feel when explaining or justifying their research. Studying neutrinos is by no means a simple task and in fact involves gigantic experimental efforts only achievable by a few countries in the world. Beyond this, what is certain is that neutrinos - which are flooding us by the millions right now - are ghostly creatures that pass through us without us being able to do anything to stop them. To add to their mystery, they are capable of mutating between different "leptonic" families, something that physicists call different "flavors" in a much more pedestrian way. This mutation, as well as the fact of their intangible presence, makes them very difficult to observe, so that only the work of those who share this well-deserved award (in my modest opinion) has been able to verify for certain that this "dance of flavors" is behind the existence of their mass.

It definitely takes a great fascination with the intangible to get involved in tests where these ideas are studied experimentally. Both Dr. Kajita and Dr. McDonald conduct their research hundreds of meters underground, in abandoned mines where they isolate themselves from other forms of radiation as much as possible. Gigantic tanks of heavy water are placed in these mines where they observe the sporadic flashes of light that a neutrino gives off as it passes through. Using these flashes, and after a very meticulous process of analysis of the data, it was possible to verify, for example, that the neutrinos coming from supernova 1987A arrived with a certain delay with respect to the light coming from the explosion. This delay is logical if we assume that neutrinos have mass, something that is indispensable for them to be able to mutate between flavors, as we now know they do.

What now? Is this a closed problem? Absolutely not! This award undoubtedly reinforces those who preach the need for further research on neutrinos. The fact that they have mass raises serious inconsistencies to the model Standard of the universe that a short time ago also deserved the Nobel Prize in the figure of the Higgs Boson. What is now being awarded is only an important step on a long road where it is essential to determine the mass (or masses) that will allow the neutrino to be incorporated into the Olympus of elementary particles.