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Antarctic neutrino-hunting project IceCube named Breakthrough of the Year by Physics World

December 13, 2013

University of Toronto among extensive list of global collaborators

TORONTO, ON – Inter­na­tion­al high-ener­gy physics research project Ice­Cube has been named the 2013 Break­through of the Year by British mag­a­zine Physics World. The Antarc­tic obser­va­to­ry has been select­ed for mak­ing the first obser­va­tion of cos­mic neu­tri­nos, but also for over­com­ing the many chal­lenges of cre­at­ing and oper­at­ing a colos­sal detec­tor deep under the ice at the South Pole.

“The abil­i­ty to detect cos­mic neu­tri­nos is a remark­able achieve­ment that gives astronomers a com­plete­ly new way of study­ing the cos­mos,” says Hamish John­ston, edi­tor of “The judges of the 2013 award were also impressed with the Ice­Cube collaboration’s abil­i­ty to build and oper­ate a huge and extreme­ly sen­si­tive detec­tor in the most remote and inhos­pitable place on Earth.”

Essen­tial­ly a tele­scope in the ground, the Ice­Cube Neu­tri­no Obser­va­to­ry was com­plet­ed in Decem­ber 2010, after sev­en years of con­struc­tion at the South Pole. But the idea of a huge detec­tor buried in the ice was con­ceived a long time ago And in the 1990s, the AMANDA detec­tor was built as a proof of con­cept for Ice­Cube. By Jan­u­ary 2005, the first sen­sors of Ice­Cube had already reached 2,450 metres below the Antarc­tic ice sheet, and a few weeks ago the Ice­Cube Col­lab­o­ra­tion pub­lished the first evi­dence for a very high-ener­gy astro­phys­i­cal neu­tri­no flux in Sci­ence.

“This is the begin­ning of a new era for astron­o­my,” says Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to physi­cist and Ice­Cube col­lab­o­ra­tor Ken Clark. “This result opens up the abil­i­ty to use neu­tri­nos to explore our uni­verse. These real­ly are the ide­al mes­sen­ger par­ti­cles since they can trav­el vast dis­tances with­out stop­ping or slow­ing.”

Ice­Cube prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor is Fran­cis Halzen, the Hill­dale and Gre­go­ry Bre­it Pro­fes­sor of Physics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. As he envi­sioned, the Antarc­tic ice became the per­fect medi­um to search for very high-ener­gy neu­tri­nos that, after trav­el­ling through the uni­verse dur­ing mil­lions — even bil­lions — of years, hap­haz­ard­ly inter­act with the nucle­us of a mol­e­cule of ice.

“I did not imag­ine that the sci­ence would be as excit­ing as build­ing this detec­tor,” says Halzen. “Chal­lenges were many, from deci­pher­ing the opti­cal prop­er­ties of ice that we have nev­er seen, to drilling a hole to 2.5 kilo­me­tres in two days, and then repeat­ing 86 times. The suc­cess of Ice­Cube builds on the efforts of hun­dreds of col­lab­o­ra­tors around the world — from the design, the deploy­ment in a harsh envi­ron­ment and the AMANDA pro­to­type, to data har­vest­ing and physics analy­sis.”

Ice­Cube is com­prised of 5,160 dig­i­tal opti­cal mod­ules sus­pend­ed along 86 cables embed­ded in a cubic kilo­me­tre of ice beneath the South Pole. It detects neu­tri­nos through the tiny flash­es of blue light, called Cherenkov light, that are pro­duced when neu­tri­nos inter­act in the ice.

Physics World will be host­ing a Google Hang­out on Fri­day, Decem­ber 13, at 11a.m. EST with:

•           Hamish John­ston, edi­tor of (in Lon­don)

•           Fran­cis Halzen, Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son pro­fes­sor and prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor of Ice­Cube (in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin)

•           James Roth, a mem­ber of the Ice­Cube Col­lab­o­ra­tion and a senior elec­tron­ics instru­ment spe­cial­ist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware (at the Amund­sen-Scott South Pole Sta­tion)

The Hang­out can also be viewed live on the Physics World YouTube chan­nel.

The Ice­Cube Neu­tri­no Obser­va­to­ry was built under a Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Major Research Equip­ment and Facil­i­ties Con­struc­tion grant, with assis­tance from part­ner fund­ing agen­cies around the world. The project con­tin­ues with sup­port from a Main­te­nance and Oper­a­tions grant from the NSF’s Divi­sion of Polar Pro­grams and Physics Divi­sion, along with inter­na­tion­al sup­port from par­tic­i­pat­ing insti­tu­tions and their fund­ing agen­cies. UW–Madison is the lead insti­tu­tion and the inter­na­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tion includes 275 physi­cists and engi­neers from the U.S., Ger­many, Swe­den, Bel­gium, Switzer­land, Japan, Cana­da, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, U.K., Korea and Den­mark.

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Note to media: Vis­it for a mul­ti­me­dia gallery about the Ice­Cube project.


Ken Clark
Depart­ment of Physics
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to