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Physics professor Eugene Beier led the Penn team on a neutrinos experiment that won the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

The sun bombards the earth with billions of neutrinos every second, and Penn scientists just gained more insight about the odd particles.

On Nov. 8, 23 Penn scientists were presented the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their work on neutrinos. The $3 million grant prize will be split among five different groups of scientists, including the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration, which the Penn team — led by Physics professor Eugene Beier — was a part of.

The award ceremony was held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and will be broadcast by Fox on Nov. 29.

The collaboration of scientists joined together to learn more about neutrinos, which are very tiny and fast particles in the universe with almost no mass. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a telescope as tall as a 10-story building, was constructed from 1990 to 1998 for $80 million to conduct experiments on neutrinos.

The Observatory was placed 2 km underground in the Vale Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ontario. Faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral students were involved in the project. Some scientists, like Richard Van Berg, not only took part in building the SNO but also collected data at the observatory.

“We thought that there was a possibility that neutrinos change,” he said.

According to Beier, who started working on the project in 1987, neutrinos, which are produced in the sun and other stars, travel long distances. By studying them, scientists are able to understand what goes on in the sun. Their experiment has found that neutrinos change while heading to earth, and this change suggests that their mass is more than zero, a finding that somewhat modifies the existing Standard Model for elementary particles.

Van Berg highlighted that the project took longer than expected due to the difficulties they faced underground with the detector and with keeping an active mine free of mud and dust while 60 people moved in and out. The experience reaffirmed his understanding that technology is relatively simple compared to sociology.

“It’s hard to get a whole bunch of smart people thinking in the same direction,” he said.

Professor of Physics and Astronomy Josh Klein, who led the analysis process and began working on the project in 1994, agreed.

“Trying to get everybody to work together was a challenge,” he said.

He added that the project taught him to stick with his principles but at the same time to accept compromise for the greater good. He hopes that their findings, which are published, will inspire more young people to study fundamental physics. He also noted that because of the long and tedious process of studying and verifying the analysis, their team did not start appreciating their results until the whole experiment was finalized.

“We took a deep breath and said wow,” he added.

Nuno Barros, who was a graduate student in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2006 when he joined the research team, shared Klein’s enthusiasm.

“To know that you are working on something that is on the edge is phenomenal,” he said.

Barros explained that his toughest challenge was joining experiments that had been underway for decades, in which each participant was an expert.

“You basically want to learn everything from everyone,” he said. “You cannot help but look up to those people.”

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