MCLA Professor Featured Among Top 10 Physics Breakthroughs of 2023

NORTH ADAMS — MCLA Physics Professor Emily Maher, one of 65 scientists in the MINERvA collaboration at Fermi National Accelerator Lab (Fermilab), has published work that has been chosen as one of the “Top 10 Physics Breakthroughs of 2023” in Physics World.

Over a 10-year span, the MINERvA detector recorded the interactions of neutrinos and antineutrinos, the antimatter partners of the neutrino. The physicists working on the MINERvA experiment used the data to make a groundbreaking new measurement, which was published last February in Nature.

“We work to uncover and understand nature’s smallest building blocks,” Maher said. “I am repeatedly amazed at how we use particle accelerators that span miles to shoot invisible particles at multi-story detectors to ‘see’ something as small as a proton. No human has even been able to make this measurement before, and I am delighted that this science is not merely interesting to specialists in my field, but also recognized by the larger world as a real contribution.”

To be featured on the list of physics breakthroughs, research must have been published within the last year, generate significant advances in knowledge or understanding, and show the importance of work for scientific progress and/or development of real-world applications.

The study, led by Tejin Cai at the University of Rochester in the U.S. and Canada’s York University, shows how information about the internal structure of a proton can be gleaned from neutrinos scattering from a plastic target. The team focused on isolating the signal from neutrinos scattered off lone protons within the background of those scattered off protons bound in carbon nuclei. Their innovative approach involved simulating and subtracting the carbon-scattered signal from experimental data. This provides insights into proton structure and enhances the understanding of how neutrinos interact with matter.

Maher has spent more than 20 years studying neutrinos. She began her work at Fermilab in 2000, studying the tau neutrino for her thesis work. This experiment, called DONuT (direct observation of nu tau), made the world’s first direct observation of the tau neutrino. Maher said she enjoys studying neutrinos because “neutrinos continually surprise us and point us to new physics.”