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Physicists earn university’s first NSERC John C. Polanyi Award for breakthrough work on antimatter

Scientists’ contribution to understanding what the universe is made of earns them prestigious award
February 4, 2014
Participating in the Rideau Hall award ceremony on Monday from the University of Calgary were, from left: Ed McCauley, vice-president (research); Prof. Robert Thompson; President Elizabeth Cannon, and Ken Barker, dean of the Faculty of Science.

Participating in the Rideau Hall award ceremony on Monday from the University of Calgary were, from left: Ed McCauley, vice-president (research); Prof. Robert Thompson; President Elizabeth Cannon, and Ken Barker, dean of the Faculty of Science.

Makoto Fujiwara with His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. Photo courtesy MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall

Makoto Fujiwara with His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. Photo courtesy MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall

Two physicists from the University of Calgary are part of a nationwide contingent that received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) John C. Polanyi Award on Feb. 3. This marks the first time University of Calgary researchers have received this prestigious award.

Adjunct Associate Prof. Makoto C. Fujiwara and Prof. Robert Thompson from the Department of Physics and Astronomy accepted the award with their five research colleagues at a ceremony held in Ottawa and hosted by the Governor General of Canada.

The team, which includes Mike Hayden (Simon Fraser University), Walter Hardy (University of British Columbia), Art Olin (TRIUMF/University of Victoria), David Gill (TRIUMF), and Scott Menary (York University), made significant scientific contributions to the international Antihydrogen Laser PHysics Apparatus project, also known as ALPHA. University of Calgary graduate students Richard Hydomako and Tim Friesen also contributed to ALPHA-Canada’s efforts.

Video: Prof. Thompson describes Project Alpha.

“Canadian researchers are making stellar contributions in their fields and are highly respected around the world,” said Janet Walden, chief operating officer, NSERC. “NSERC is extremely proud of this world-class talent that is advancing our knowledge and expanding our understanding of the universe.” 

University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon applauded Fujiwara, Thompson and their collaborators, saying the award is symbolic of their drive to push the boundary of science.

"This NSERC John C. Polanyi Award is a demonstration of the quality, depth and significance of the work our researchers are involved in,” said Cannon. “Thanks to government funding, this collaborative group of researchers has been able to contribute to our shared understanding of the universe. Efforts like these are directly aligned with positioning Canada as a global leader in research innovation and support the University of Calgary’s strategic direction, Eyes High, to become one of Canada's top five research universities by our 50th anniversary in 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead."

Understanding how universe was formed

Based at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, ALPHA is a global research endeavor intent on explaining how the universe formed after the Big Bang. The project was created with the goals of creating the simplest form of atomic antimatter (antihydrogen), capturing it for long periods of time, and studying its characteristics.

“Through this project, our team has aimed to solve the mysteries of antimatter, and boldly go where no human has gone before,” said Fujiwara in his acceptance remarks at the event. “This has been an exciting adventure.”

Since the 1990s, scientists have been able to create and detect antimatter atoms. Early experiments revealed the fleeting existence of anti-atoms, drastically limiting the ability to study it.

In 2010 and 2011, the Canadian research group working on the ALPHA project was instrumental in demonstrating the ability to capture antimatter atoms in a magnetic bottle for over 16 minutes — 5,000 times longer than their previous best.

In 2012, the Canadian collaborators developed methods that led to the first measurement of the properties of atomic antimatter, providing the world with its first glimpse of an “antiatomic fingerprint” and offering new clues into the fundamental makeup of our universe. Their findings were published in the journal Nature.

Spirit of international collaboration

“ALPHA exemplifies the spirit of international cooperation among researchers with very different scientific and cultural backgrounds, working together for the sake of advancing knowledge—a spirit so evident at laboratories like CERN and TRIUMF,” added Fujiwara who is also a research scientist at TRIUMF, a subatomic physics research lab in Vancouver.

“We are thankful to NSERC, NRC, our home universities and TRIUMF, all of whom took risks in supporting ALPHA and provided essential resources,” said Fujiwara. “Thanks to you, we were able to achieve the first-ever stable confinement and spectroscopic measurement of anti-atoms.”

The NSERC John C. Polanyi Award was created in 2006 in tribute to the excellence in research that John C. Polanyi continues to exemplify. Polanyi won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Excellence in research

“I believe we were selected for this honour because ALPHA tackles a grand challenge—the creation, capture and study of the most elusive and unknown material in our universe, atomic antimatter,” said Thompson, head of Department of Physics and Astronomy and member of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology (IQST) at the University of Calgary.

“Only time will tell how the eventual results from the field of antimatter physics might influence our view of the universe and how it operates,” he stated.

As part of the award, ALPHA-Canada has received a research grant of $250,000.

Support for ALPHA-Canada and its research came from NSERC, TRIUMF, AIF (Alberta Ingenuity Fund), the Killam Trust, and FQRNT (Le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies).