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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

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Science with ties to Fermilab top year-end ‘best of’ lists

Christmas time brings not only presents and pretty cookies but an outpouring of media lists proffering the best science stories of the year and predicting those that will top the list in 2012.

While the lists varied wildly everyone seemed excited by a few of the same things: upsetting Einstein’s theory of special relativity, a hint of the ‘god particle’ and finding planets like our own.

Several of the stories that made nearly every media outlet’s list, though in various rankings, have a connection, directly or indirectly, to Fermilab. Here’s a sampling with the rankings from the publications.

Discover magazine had the largest list, picking the top 100 science stories.

1: A claim by researchers at the OPERA experiment at CERN that they had measured neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, something disallowed by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Now the scientific community is looking for another experiment to cross-check OPERA’s claim.

That brought renewed interest to a 2007 measurement by the MINOS experiment based at Fermilab that found neutrinos skirting the cosmic speed limit, but only slightly. The MINOS collaboration always planned to study this further when it upgrades its detector in early 2012 but the OPERA result added new urgency.

Look in 2012 for MINOS to update the time of flight of neutrinos debate in three stages. First, MINOS is analyzing the data collected since its 2007 result to look for this phenomena. Results should be ready in early 2012. This likely will improve the MINOS  precision in this area by a factor of three from its 2007 result. Second, MINOS is in the process of upgrading its timing system within the next few months using a system of atomic clocks to detect when the neutrinos arrive at the detector. The atomic clock system will progressively improve resolution, which is needed to make the MINOS analysis comparable to the OPERA result and improve precision from the 2007 MINOS result by as much as a factor of 10. That will tell us if OPERA was on the right track or not, but may not be the definitive answer. That answer will come with the upgrades to the MINOS experiment  and a more powerful neutrino beam, producing a larger quantity of neutrino events to study. The upgraded MINOS experiment will be in many ways a more precise system than OPERA’s and could produce a result comparable with OPERA’s precision likely by January 2014.

4: Kepler’s search for Earth-like planets that could sustain life produces a bounty of cosmic surprises, fueled, in part, by the computing skills of a Fermilab astrophysicist.
32: The on-again, off-again rumor of finding the Higgs boson particle.  Physicists working with experiments at Fermilab’s Tevatron experiments and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider expect to answer the question of whether a Standard Model version of the Higgs exists in 2012.
65: The shutdown of the Tevatron at Fermilab after 28 years and numerous scientific and technological achievements.
82: Fermilab physicist Jason Steffen’s frustration with slow airplane boarding drives him to figure out a formula to speed up the aisle crawl.

Nature’s year in review didn’t rank stories but started off by mentioning the Tevatron’s shutdown after 28 years and following up shortly with the puzzling particle news of potentially FTL neutrinos and a Higgs sighting.

For science — as for politics and economics — 2011 was a year of upheaval, the effects of which will reverberate for decades. The United States lost three venerable symbols of its scientific might: the space-shuttle programme, the Tevatron particle collider and blockbuster profits from the world’s best-selling drug all came to an end.

Cosmos magazine rankings:

The MINOS far detector in the Soudan Mine in Minnesota. Credit: Fermilab

1: Kepler’s exoplanet findings
2: FTL neutrinos
3: Higgs

Scientific American‘s choices:

3: FTL neutrinos
5: Higgs

ABC News asked science radio and TV host physicist Michio Kaku for his top 10 picks. They include:

3: Hint of Higgs
5: Kepler’s exoplanet findings
10: Nobel Prize for the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, which laid the groundwork for the today’s search for dark energy. Fermilab has several connections to to this work. The latest tool in dark energy survey experiments, the Dark Energy Camera,  was constructed at Fermilab in 2011. One of the three prize winners, Saul Perlmutter, is a member of the group that will use the camera, the Dark Energy Survey collaboration. Adam Riess, another of the winners, is a member of the SDSS-II experiment, a predecessor to DES that Fermilab was key in building and later operating its computing system.

Live Science

5: FTL neutrinos
4: Kepler’s exoplanet findings
2: Higgs

If the Higgs boson’s mass is high, it is expected to decay predominantly into two W bosons. Plushies images from the Particle Zoo.

To make the Ars Technica list stories had to be awe inspiring in 2011 AND have a chance of making the 2012 list as well.

1: FTL neutrinos
2: Kepler’s exoplanet findings
6: Higgs hunt

Science magazine chose the best scientific breakthrough of the year. Kepler’s exoplanet hunt made it into the runner up list.

Tell us who you agree with or, better, yet give us your own top 10 science stories of the year.

— Tona Kunz

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