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Otterbein Associate Professor Tagg received portion of 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics

Otterbein Associate Professor Tagg worked on Nobel Prize in Physics winning project

They say good things come in small particles.

At least that’s been the case for Associate Professor of Physics Nathaniel Tagg, who as a graduate student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, participated in an experiment involving neutrinos that won a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics as well as a share of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics this year.

That experiment, which got underway in the late 1990’s with key published papers in the early 2000’s, defined Tagg’s future career path and hooked him on neutrinos for life, which he shares with his students at Otterbein today. Tagg is listed as co-author along with around 100 other scientists, technicians and engineers on several of the most important papers which led to the Nobel Prize. The associate professor continues to work on several neutrino experiments, including MicroBooNE, being conducted at Fermilab near Chicago. Every summer, Tagg takes two Otterbein students to Fermilab to work on neutrino experiments as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“Neutrinos are weird, they go right through stuff,” Tagg explained. “There are about a billion of them in every cubic centimeter of your body right now going at the speed of light right through you. They’ll never touch you. Maybe one will interact with an atom in your body in your entire life. We knew about the existence of the neutrino about 30 to 40 years before we actually ever detected one.”

What led to the Nobel Prize was the discovery of neutrino oscillations, that solar neutrinos changed from one form to another on their trip from the sun to the earth, in two experiments being conducted at the same time. Tagg worked on the experiment cnducted by Arthur B. McDonald at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Canada.

The importance of the discovery was proof that neutrinos, “once considered massless, must have some mass, however small,” according to the press release issued by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “A neutrino puzzle that physicists had wrestled with for decades had been resolved. Compared to theoretical calculations of the number of neutrinos, up to two thirds of the neutrinos were missing in measurements performed on Earth. Now, the experiments discovered that neutrinos had changed identities.”

Prior to SNO, scientists had already learned how to detect neutrinos coming from the sun and how to measure them, according to Tagg. The problem was in the fact that all of the experiments created to measure solar neutrinos came up with measurements far less than the number of neutrinos scientists knew should be there.

“It’s not clear how important that this discovery is to explaining the universe,” Tagg said. “It is believed that neutrinos could play a very big role in how that story goes.”

Tagg’s pathway to SNO was led by his interest in physics and his passion for building things.

“Physics to me is a very interesting discipline,” Tagg said. “It requires a set of skills that are fun in of themselves. Understanding electronics, understanding computers, understanding statistics, understanding mathematics, and understanding quantum mechanics—all of these things that are in fields of their own. Experimental physics drew me in during grad school because it pulled all these things together.”

In the end, SNO captured about 20 neutrinos a day or about one every hour, according to Tagg.

“It may tell us something about what’s happening inside the sun,” Tagg said. “It may tell us something about the universe. One of the more important endeavors of the human race is just to figure out what the heck is going on within the universe.”

Find out more about the Otterbein Department of Physics.