Long-time HPCVL user and Queen’s professor wins Nobel Prize in Physics

art-mcdonaldQueen’s University professor emeritus Arthur McDonald is the co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo, for the discovery of neutrino oscillation.

A world-renowned expert in nuclear and particle physics, Dr. McDonald arrived at Queen’s in 1989 to head the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) and lead an international team in the detection and analysis of neutrinos. He served as the director of SNO, later expanded into SNOLAB, a facility which provides an unparalleled experimental environment for students and scientists working to understand everything from darkmatter and supernovae to the nature of the Big Bang.

Over the years the SNO collaboration has relied on resources at Queen’s University’s High Performance Computing Virtual Lab (HPCVL) to store and analyze the vast amounts of data required for this type of work. HPCVL is a consortia member of Compute Ontario and a regional partner of Compute Canada. Several years ago the full set of SNO data was transferred to HPCVL to act as a backup and accessible archive for ongoing analyses of the data. In speaking with Dr. McDonald some years ago, he relayed that “HPCVL has provided a critical evolution of computing power to meet our needs. We are continuing to analyze the SNO data with ever-increasing accuracy. HPCVL has allowed us to remain at the frontier of physics – and at the leading edge of discovery.”

“I am truly honoured to receive the Nobel Prize in physics,” Dr. McDonald says. “While I am a co-winner of the Nobel Prize, the honour really represents a culmination of the hard work and contributions of Canadian and international colleagues with whom I have collaborated with during my career.”

snodetectorSNOLAB is an advanced research facility located 2 km underground in an active nickel mine. SNOLAB is a facility based on the success of SNO. SNOLAB includes and the SNO cavity and labs and a large expansion. The SNO detector was active from 1999 through 2006. The SNO experiment demonstrated that neutrinos from the sun are not disappearing on their way to earth and may be captured with a different identity when arriving at SNO. While new data are no longer being collected, the SNO collaboration continues to analyze the data gathered during that period.

The project has also fostered valuable collaborations with over a dozen institutions around the world and has provided educational opportunities for hundreds of students across a range of disciplines. The data collected over the years have been used in many ways to build new theories about our universe and new ideas for our world.

While Dr. McDonald was working at the SNO his Nobel Prize co-winner, Dr. Kajita, presented the discovery that neutrinos from the atmosphere switch between two identities on their way to the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan. This change requires that neutrinos have mass, a discovery that changed “our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe,” said the Nobel committee.

ArthurMcDonaldDr. Daniel Woolf, Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, offered his “heartfelt congratulations to Dr. McDonald on this significant achievement. Dr. McDonald’s scientific contributions have advanced our understanding of the universe, and also set the path for new directions in the study of physics and astronomy. His innovative vision has made Canada a world-leader in the field of particle astrophysics and paved the way for fruitful international collaborations.”

Dr. Steven Liss, Queen’s Vice-Principal (Research), added his congratulations – “I am absolutely delighted at this worldwide recognition for the fundamental research undertaken by Dr. McDonald and the team at SNOLAB. There is a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction as an institution that Queen’s has this moment to celebrate one of its finest in Arthur McDonald. It doesn’t get better than the Nobel Prize.”

The SNO experiment relied on HPCVL to understand its neutrino oscillation data. Even beyond that the data are so rich that HPCVL is still being used for final analyses on a variety of topics. In addition to secure storage of the data and the computation required for analysis, HPCVL was used extensively for simulations. In order to truly understand the results and the uncertainties on the results, it is necessary to test the analysis against a variety of scenarios using simulation. This can be computationally expensive and the technology and staff at HPCVL helped make this possible.