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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

IceCube project receives breakthrough award

The IceCube project, a research project collaboration between several scientists, including professors in the University of Alabama physics department, was awarded the “Breakthrough of the Year” award for 2013 by the magazine, Physics World.

IceCube is a multi-purpose neutrino detector that is being used for several research purposes, including detecting exotic cosmic point sources that emit high-energy neutrinos. Though physicists have been trying to detect cosmic neutrinos for many decades, IceCube is the first neutrino telescope system with that aim; it has observed high-energy neutrinos from outside of our solar system within two to three years of its full operation.

“This is the first time extremely high energy neutrinos have been detected outside of our solar system,” Dawn Williams, an associate professor of physics at the University, said. “We’ve seen neutrinos outside of our solar system once before, but those were lower energy from a supernova. These are much higher energy neutrinos. These are the highest energy neutrinos that have ever been seen.”

Physics World is an international monthly magazine that covers all areas of physics. It is also the member magazine of the Institute of Physics, one of the world’s largest societies of physicists, and has significant influence worldwide, Hamish Johnson, editor of the magazine, said. Johnson said IceCube’s success will inspire other physicists to propose similarly-sized projects.

“I think many physicists are very impressed with the work of the collaboration and are looking forward to more of its scientific results,” Johnson said in an emailed statement.

The Physics World “Breakthrough of the Year” award has been issued annually since 2009, and the winner is chosen by a panel of six editors and reporters from the magazine. The selection criteria includes the fundamental importance of the research, significant advance in knowledge, strong connection between theory and experiment, and general interest to all physicists.

“Every year we publish hundreds of news stories about physics research, which we choose very carefully from the thousands of research papers published by physicists around the world,” Johnson said. “As a result we think we have a very good idea of ‘what’s hot’ in physics and who is doing the best work out there.”

Johnson said the IceCube project stood out for a number of reasons, most importantly that it is the first “real neutrino telescope” and will allow astronomers to see neutrinos that are emitted by distant objects in the universe.

“That was not really possible before,” Johnson said. “It should help, for example, astronomers work out where cosmic rays come from, which is a long-standing mystery. IceCube has also joined the race to detect dark matter, an even more profound mystery of physics, and will even be used to study neutrinos that are created at the center of the Earth.”

Johnson said they were also impressed that the team managed to build such a big detector deep under the ice at the South Pole and that the detector was completed on budget and works better than expected.

Donglian Xu, a student in the physics department at the University, said the UA department of physics and astronomy holds a strong neutrino research program. He said neutrino research at the University encompasses terrestrial reactor and accelerator sources, and IceCube complements and extends the UA neutrino research program by making use of the cosmic accelerators from the deep universe, which achieve energies that are not yet approachable on Earth.

“Building and running a detector in Antarctica has brought along precious opportunities for researchers to explore the remote South Pole in person,” Xu said. “I myself have travelled with colleagues from UA to the South Pole in January 2011, on behalf of the IceCube collaboration to collect calibration data. This influential award in particular will introduce to the public a fantastic experiment that UA researchers are involved in, and will potentially inspire younger generations in Alabama to participate in fundamental scientific research.”

For more information on the IceCube project and its award, visit


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