MCLA Physics Prof RPart of Research Recognized as Top 10 Breakthrough for 2012


NORTH ADAMS, MASS. - Research conducted in part at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) by Dr. Emily Maher, chair of the College's physics department, has been named by Physics World as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2012.

Maher is part of a group of physicists and engineers who are the first to demonstrate communication using neutrinos. MINERvA scientists, Fermilab accelerator physicists and a group of engineers at North Carolina State University conducted this initiative, which was highly commended by Physics World.

According to Maher, the neutrino communication experiment was a very exciting side project of MINERvA (Main Injector Neutrino ExperRiment v-A) at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois, where she studies the neutrino, a fundamental particle.

Scientists from North Carolina State University wanted to see if communication through the use of neutrinos was possible, and asked the MINERvA group to test that potential for the first time.

Maher, who helped to build the neutrino detector and the mechanism that makes it possible to see the beam, wrote part of the data analysis codes that made this type of communication possible.

"I am excited this MINERvA research was deemed one of the top 10 physics breakthroughs of the year," she said. "Experimental particle physics is funded, in large part, by the government. It is important that the public hear about the breakthroughs generated by these projects as they are paying for the research. We, as scientists, need to demonstrate that science is providing a positive return on this investment, which it is. The funding of Fermilab allows me to work on this amazing experiment from MCLA."

She and the other researchers figured out how to encode and detect a signal using neutrinos. By using Fermilab's NuMI neutrino beam and the MINERvA detector, the group transmitted data to show that the principle of neutrino communication is sound.

"This was a proof of principle experiment," Maher explained. "In the far future, this type of communication could be used to communicate over large distances in difficult environments, such as space or the ocean."

Using neutrinos is a good method of communication, she said, because they rarely interact with matter. As a result, they can travel very far distances. Communication through neutrinos also is extremely secure because the information is very difficult for others to intercept.

This work not only allows Maher to contribute to frontier research, but to share what she discovers with her students.

"It's really cutting-edge research. No one has done this before. I can explain basically what the applications are and how we accomplished it. I'm an expert on it as I've built part of it, so I know the ins and outs, and I can answer any questions they have," she said.

Maher began her work at Fermilab in 2008, when the MINERvA group accepted her and MCLA into its collaboration.

Each year, Physics World publishes a list of the top breakthroughs in physics using the following criteria: fundamental importance of research, significant advance in knowledge, strong connection between theory and experiment, and general interest to all physicists.

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