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York U Professor among recipients of 2013 Polanyi Prize

TORONTO, Feb. 3, 2014 – Canadian scientists who were part of an international collaboration that narrowed the gap between sci-fi legend and reality, including York University Professor Scott Menary, will be receiving a prestigious national award at a ceremony in Ottawa today.

For their work in creating, capturing, and characterizing the antihydrogen atom, the ALPHA-Canada Team are being presented with the NSERC John C. Polanyi Award for 2013, which “honours an individual or team whose Canadian-based research has led to a recent outstanding advance in the natural sciences or engineering.” The Award recognizes the seamless collaboration among the multidisciplinary team, their mastery of multiple technologies, and their tight integration with the international collaboration based at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

The ALPHA Collaboration has developed a game-changing experimental program to help explain how the universe was able to form after the Big Bang. The initial breakthrough came in 2010 when they captured antihydrogen (the antimatter partner to normal hydrogen) for the first time. Then in 2011 they were able to hold antihydrogen in a sophisticated “magnetic bottle” for over 16 minutes – 5000 times longer than before. In the latest experiment, published in 2012 in the journal Nature, the collaboration (led by the Canadian team) measured for the first time the response of trapped antihydrogen to microwaves, which opened the door to comparing it to the extremely well-known response of normal hydrogen. Any discrepancy between the two would yield invaluable information for why the universe is dominated by normal matter, while the antimatter has all but disappeared.

“It's enormously gratifying to have our research recognized with such an award," says Menary. "NSERC, as well as the NRC and the participating universities, took a risk supporting this project and we are thrilled that we have been able to justify their confidence in our team.

"We believe that the universe began with the Big Bang and equal numbers of particles and antiparticles were generated at that time. But there is very little antimatter around us now which begs the question as to what mechanism could have led to its disappearance. By probing an antimatter system with very high precision and comparing it to the well-understood matter system we are hoping to catch a first glimpse at the answer to this fundamental question.”

The experiment was a multidisciplinary tour de force, combining more than a dozen plasma, atomic, condensed-matter, particle, detector, and accelerator physicists and students from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU), the University of Calgary, York University and the TRIUMF subatomic physics research lab in Vancouver. Speaking on behalf of the ALPHA-Canada Team, Dr. Makoto Fujiwara enthused “We are thankful to NSERC, NRC, our home universities and TRIUMF, as well as our scientific colleagues around the globe for their risk-taking and support. ALPHA truly exemplifies the spirit of international cooperation.” TRIUMF Science Director Dr. Reiner Kruecken remarked “This award is a great honour for the ALPHA-Canada Team and TRIUMF is proud of the critical contributions by our scientists and staff to the breakthroughs of the international ALPHA collaboration in trapping and studying antihydrogen.”

The ALPHA experiment will soon be back online after a lengthy shutdown of the CERN facility. The Team has been hard at work making a series of improvements to the experimental apparatus. These enhancements will enable the collaboration to make much more detailed measurements of the atomic structure of antihydrogen, opening up a precision frontier into the anti-world.

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

York University is helping to shape the global thinkers and thinking that will define tomorrow. York U’s unwavering commitment to excellence reflects a rich diversity of perspectives and a strong sense of social responsibility that sets us apart. A York U degree empowers graduates to thrive in the world and achieve their life goals through a rigorous academic foundation balanced by real-world experiential education. As a globally recognized research centre, York U is fully engaged in the critical discussions that lead to innovative solutions to the most pressing local and global social challenges. York U’s 11 faculties and 27 research centres are thinking bigger, broader and more globally, partnering with 288 leading universities worldwide. York U's community is strong − 55,000 students, 7,000 faculty and staff, and more than 250,000 alumni.

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Media Contact: Robin Heron, Media Relations, York University, 416 736 2100 x22097/ rheron@yorku.ca