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Looking Back on a Great Year for Science

Fermilab is involved in a pair of experiments that made Physics World's top 10 breakthroughs of 2012. It's a great way to end the year.

It’s that time of year again. In two weeks, 2012 will be in the history books, and before that happens, it’s time to look back on the past 12 months.

You’re going to see a lot of top 10 lists in the coming days, ranking everything from movies to music to hairstyles. But there’s one such list we here at Fermilab are pretty excited about, and it was published on Friday.

It’s Physics Today’s annual list of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs, and it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that 2012 was a great year for basic research. You can read the full article here, but there are two we’re involved with, and I’d like to highlight them.

There was never any doubt what would land atop this list, at least around these parts. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the Higgs boson, and the fact that scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland have discovered something they think might be the elusive particle.

That discovery was announced in July by a pair of extensive scientific collaborations, called ATLAS and CMS. What many people don’t realize is that Fermilab is a partner in the CMS experiment, and we have a remote control room on site to monitor and analyze data from the Large Hadron Collider.

It would take a lot more space than I have to explain why a confirmed discovery of the Higgs boson would be a very big deal. Suffice it to say that scientists have come up with a picture of the visible universe, and the extremely small particles that make it up, and the Higgs is just about the last piece of the puzzle they need to know they’re right. It will help determine why things have mass, and how that mass is created.

While this may sound like the end of physics, it’s really not. There are plenty of questions still to be answered about dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos, and a million other things. But having this puzzle piece in place, should this turn out to be a genuine Higgs boson, would bring our idea of the universe into much sharper focus.

So yes, the discovery of a Higgs-like particle deserves to top Physics World’s list, and big congrats are due the ATLAS and CMS collaborations.

But there’s another entry on the list we’re jazzed about. It involves an experiment performed early this year with our 170-ton MINERvA neutrino detector, which lives underground here at Fermilab. Using this device, scientists were able to send and receive a coded message using neutrinos as the carrier.

That’s right. They used neutrinos – tiny particles that pass through just about anything, rarely interacting with anything else – to actually communicate information, like subatomic radio waves. Scientists have been thinking about how to do this for decades, but the experiment at Fermilab was the first time it worked.

Of course, practical applications are a long way off. You still need an accelerator to generate neutrinos and a massive detector to receive the messages. But as Physics Today pointed out, this experiment proved the principle is sound. You can read more about that here.

We’re thrilled to be included in this list, and equally thrilled to see our colleagues from around the world recognized for their efforts. It was a really good year.

And speaking of the end of the year, this will be the last Patch blog of 2012. I’ll be back in three weeks, though, so watch this space. Have a great holiday season, and a very happy new year.

Andre Salles is the media and community relations specialist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He can be reached at asalles@fnal.gov, or by calling 630-840-6733.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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