Queen's professor awarded Nobel Prize

Queen’s professor emeritus Arthur McDonald reflects on winning Nobel Prize for Physics

Professor McDonald was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics.
Professor McDonald was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics.
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It was a little after 5 a.m. on Tuesday when a phone call from Stockholm roused Dr. Arthur McDonald from sleep. 

The call was from the Nobel Committee for Physics to inform the Queen’s professor that he — along with Japanese scientist Takaaki Kajita — was the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics. 

“With the shock, I’m kinda thinking, hmm ... I’ve heard of hoaxes in situations like this,” McDonald said in an interview with The Journal

For McDonald, who came to Queen’s in 1989 and has been a professor emeritus since 2013, he realized the call was real after a conversation about the Toronto Maple Leafs with Committee member Lars Bergström. 

The two had a similar conversation about former Leafs player Mats Sundin a year ago when McDonald visited Stockholm. 

Upon hanging up the phone, McDonald said his wife entered the room and the first thing he said was, “I love you.” 

“At that point, we began to wonder what all this means. And after 12 hours of steady phone calls, I’m still wondering what it’s all going to mean,” he said.

Despite a flurry of responses from colleagues, media outlets and friends — “my home phone box was full, 23 voicemails!” he said — McDonald says his most memorable moment since the announcement has been with one of his granddaughters. 

“She said, ‘gee Grandpa, I didn’t realize how smart you are!’”

McDonald’s research has focused on neutrinos — a fundamental particle that scientists previously believed held no mass.

Through his work as Director of SNOLAB — a two kilometre-deep underground laboratory in Sudbury that specializes in neutrino and dark matter physics — McDonald has proven that neutrinos can oscillate between identities while traveling between the sun and the earth. In layman’s terms, his discovery demonstrates that neutrinos hold mass.

The breakthrough has shaken the previous Standard Model of particle physics and a decades-old physics puzzle. 

The announcement made on the Nobel Prize Committee's website on Tuesday.

When asked what drew him to physics, McDonald said he had an early interest in mathematics. 

“I had an excellent math teacher in high school, who developed curiosity in math for a number of us,” he said. 

“When I went to Dalhousie, I signed up to do science. We had a wonderful first-year physics professor, who was also the department chair and very busy with that, but he chose to teach first-year physics in order to inspire people.” 

According to McDonald, the connection between science and mathematics was an attractive feature of physics. 

“It’s quite remarkable how well you can understand the world around you, with the laws of physics and application of mathematics,” he said. 

He said he’s continually amazed by the continuity of the fundamental laws of physics across time and space.

“Look at the light produced by stars that are at the limits of our ability to detect, and therefore the light [that] has travelled over the farthest distance that you can imagine,” he said.

“The particular wavelengths that are omitted by these stars — a very, very long time ago — are essentially identical to what we have here on earth.”

For McDonald, such continuity has brought great meaning to his work in the field. 

“It means that, when you measure something today, you are contributing to a very detailed knowledge of the universe that extends a way back in time.”

Although SNOLAB began with 16 scientists in 1984, the number of authors credited in their papers is currently at 277 — many of whom are or have been Queen’s students. McDonald says interacting with young people “keeps you young”. 

The University recently hired a prior PhD student of McDonald’s, Ryan Martin, as a member of the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy.

“It’s those sorts of things that, as a teacher, you can feel very good about, because it’s the development of the next generation.”

McDonald said he’s excited about his upcoming projects, including some that aim to build off his existing research to determine the absolute mass of neutrinos. 

“We are looking for these particles, that were produced in the Big Bang, banging into our liquid argon detector in the new laboratory,” he said.

“That may give us a chance to observe a totally new form of matter.” 

A new experiment aims to provide “10 times more sensitivity than is presently the case for the detection of dark matter particles” — which McDonald says makes up 26 per cent of the mass and energy in the universe. 

Since the announcement, McDonald has yet to contact his co-winner, Dr. Kajita, whom he saw three weeks ago at a conference in Italy.

When asked what he plans to say to Kajita, McDonald laughed. 

“How about, hey, isn’t this neat?”

 

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