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October 19: The Ghostly Neutrino

October 19, 2011

Jack Steinberger, Mel Schwartz and Leon Lederman Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for physics on this date in 1988 for their research at Columbia University during the 1960s into what the Nobel Committee called “the innermost structure and dynamics of matter.” Lederman is director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois; Schwartz, who died in 2006, was associate director at Brookhaven National Lab; Steinberger, a child refugee from Nazi Germany, is now a department director at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. Their achievement was in “transforming the ghostly neutrino . . . into an active tool of research” by sufficiently concentrating neutrino beams to “reveal the hard inner parts of a proton in a way not dissimilar to that in which X-rays reveal a person’s skeleton.” Their neutrino beam techniques have become a critical element of subatomic particles research.

“Our sun is a source of neutrinos . . . Every square centimeter on Earth is bombarded by many billion solar neutrinos every second and they pass straight through the Earth without leaving a noticeable mark. The neutrinos are -- if I may say so -- ‘lazy,’ they do almost nothing but steal energy, which they carry away. . . . The great achievement of the Nobel prize winners was to put the ‘lazy’ neutrinos to work.” —Professor Gösta Ekspong, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences