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Gold, Again?

October 28, 2015
By: 
Timothy I. Meyer
Chief Operating Officer
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory



I was in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics. And even though I’m actually American, I knew the right team won the hockey championship. I cheered for the first Canadian Gold (thanks, Alex xyz), and I cheered for the gold medal for Canadian hockey. And I loved the fierce competition.

In its own way, we’ve just been through the gold medals for science, and in 2015, Canada picked up the Nobel Prize in Physics for neutrino oscillations – shared between our Art McDonald and Japan’s Takaaki Kajita. Wow! Congratulations!!

But let me press further. What are we celebrating and what are we to draw from this new win? Do we quit while we’re ahead or do we keep a good thing going? As an executive now of a leading U.S. laboratory in particle physics, I have to say that the correct strategy is to press in.

What do I mean? Well, I mean “Don’t stop now” and I mean “Keep building the right team.”

We won the gold medal in hockey because we had the right players at the right game. We won the 2015 Nobel Prize because we had the right players in the right game, too. That’s the genius of Art McDonald. Unlike hockey, he had to work very, very hard and argue that neutrinos and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) were the right game and that he had the right team (the SNO Collaboration) to deliver a victory. He turned out to be right. The confirmation of neutrino mass via oscillation confirmations was disruptive and transformational to particle physics. That’s not just a coach winning the championship, that’s a coach understanding the win before it even happens.

So where does that leave us now? Is Canada done? Should we hang up our skates and call it done with neutrino physics and underground science?

NO. The reasoning lies in the nuances of what it took to win this round. Just as one championship supports the team in the next season, the Nobel Prize validates the foray into new science, big science.

What Art McDonald started, just as important as Canadian participation in the “killer science” of neutrinos, was the idea of Big Science that pays Big Dividends. The idea that a group of scientists and students and their stakeholders could get together and accomplish something truly amazing was…irreverent in high society. Art changed all that.

Big science – the research enabled by large, dedicated facilities supported by teams of people – drives value to the Canadian taxpayer in three ways. It provides the environment for discovery science, it inspires and attracts talent to STEM careers and to Canada, and it drives economic growth through technology development.

Neutrinos are hardly the new element of the next iPhone or a new microwave, but the excitement of the Nobel Prize is attracting students to STEM education and the next generation of purification and detection technologies used in SNO’s successors are driving new industrial applications.

So what’s next? Should Canada expect another gold medal for neutrinos?

Yes and no. The Nobel Prize has validated neutrino physics as one of the most exciting areas of research and Canada should expect to build a new team that will win the next championship. As an executive at a U.S.-led initiative to develop a global flagship in this area, I see Canada and SNOLAB as an essential partner. Neutrinos are a good business to be in, and the big-science nature of this research generates benefits that can be shared broadly and locally.

So, my words of advice for Canada are, Go, Go, Go!