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He missed the 'glitzy Oscars for science,' but that’s OK with Bob McKeown

  • No glitz:
    No glitz:  Physicist Bob McKeown missed out on the gala 2016 Breakthrough Awards ceremony at which he was among the scientists honored for neutrino research. He was busy — reviewing a neutrino experiment.  Jefferson Lab photo
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Wired refers to them as “the glitzy Oscars for science,” but their official name is the Breakthrough Prizes. The ceremony announcing the 2016 Breakthroughs was broadcast live on Nov. 8 on the National Geographic Channel; it was a black-tie affair hosted by Vanity Fair with Academy Award ceremony host Seth MacFarlane serving as master of ceremonies.

“By challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time,” said Mark Zuckerberg, a Breakthrough Prize co-founder, in a press release. “The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are.”

Pharrell Williams sang at the event. Celebrity award presenters included Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank and Lily Collins, whose dress (and décolletage) drew notice in media outlets not known for coverage of science. Breakthrough Prize founders Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki; Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang; Yuri and Julia Milner; Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan presented honored scientists with awards totaling nearly $22 million.

There was a red carpet, of course, but Bob McKeown didn’t get to stand on it, even though he was an honoree. McKeown didn’t even attend the event; he was in Canada reviewing another neutrino experiment.

McKeown is the Governor's Distinguished CEBAF Professor in William & Mary’s physics department as well as deputy director for science at Jefferson Lab. He was a participant in two of five experiments that shared the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

The Fundamental Physics prize went to participants in five experiments that explored the properties of neutrinos, mysterious shape-shifting particles that zoom through space —and matter —in unimaginable numbers, yet are extremely difficult to detect. The Breakthrough prize was specifically for advances in the study of neutrino oscillation, a property wherein the neutrinos change types mid-flight.  

McKeown was honored for his contributions to both the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment and the KamLAND Collaboration, experiments that were cited “for the fundamental discovery and exploration of neutrino oscillations, revealing a new frontier beyond, and possibly far beyond, the standard model of particle physics.”

Daya Bay and KamLAND were two of five experiments that jointly received the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. The other projects honored were the K2K/T2K Long-Baseline Neutrino Oscillation Experiments, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration.

McKeown doesn’t mind missing out on the glitz too much. He notes that it would take a mighty large red carpet to hold all 1,370 of his fellow honorees in the Fundamental Physics category.

He said the large number of individuals receiving the prize does not diminish the honor. Rather, he said the Breakthroughs should receive applause for acknowledging the necessarily large collaborations that are more and more common among scientists today. The Breakthrough philosophy is a contrast to that of the Nobel Foundation, which limits a single prize to no more than three recipients.

 “It is great that they were able to take an enlightened view that recognizes the teamwork needed to produce these discoveries,” he said. “Perhaps it can set a new precedent for scientific prizes.”

In addition to the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the ceremony also awarded the Breakthrough Prize for New Horizons in Physics, a Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics and a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

McKeown explained that understanding of neutrinos advances as the various experiments build upon the work of other studies. For instance, Daya Bay and KamLAND both investigated transformation properties called “mixing angles,” which are involved in the processes by which the three “flavors” of neutrino — electron, muon and tau types — change, or oscillate, from one flavor to another.

“KamLAND was very significant in confirming the oscillation phenomenon back in 2002-2003,” he explained. “At Daya Bay, we discovered the final mixing angle. This opens the door for a whole new set of experiments such as the ones that are using the beam at Fermilab that [William & Mary physicists] Tricia Vahle, Mike Kordosky and Jeff Nelson are working on.”