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  08-10-2002: NOBEL PRIZE FOR PHYSICS GOES TO RESEARCH ON NEUTRINOS AND THE OBSERVATION OF THE UNIVERSE 
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Riccardo Giacconi
Riccardo Giacconi



Prize awarded to the researcher of Italian origin Riccardo Giacconi

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences awarded half of the Nobel prize for physics to the American Raymond Davis Jr. and the Japanese Masatoshi Koshiba jointly, “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos”. The second half of the prize went to Riccardo Giacconi, of Italian origin, “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources”.

The existence of neutrinos was first supposed in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, but it was only proven in 1955 by Frederick Reines. Neutrinos are particles whose presence in the Universe is extremely abundant: more than 60 billion pass through the point of our finger every second. Nonetheless they are very difficult to detect, since they only rarely interact with normal matter. “Raymond Davis first thought of his crucial experiment thanks to an old idea of Bruno Pontecorvo’s that had been published in 1946. The idea consisted mainly in using chlorine as a target for neutrinos”, explains Enrico Bellotti, who is in charge of the gallium experiment for the study of solar neutrinos currently being carried out at the Gran Sasso Laboratories of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (Infn). Davis carried out the experiment at the beginning of the 50s by positioning an enormous barrel filled with 600 tons of a chlorine compound in an underground mine. In fact the study of neutrinos requires a protected environment, since the “background noise” produced by the cosmic particles that constantly hit the Earth surface must be eliminated.
“At first Davis’ experiment was met with great scepticism by the scientific community. Nonetheless, research continued for thirty years, during which time about 2.000 neutrinos from the Sun were identified and studied. This was the first proof to confirm that these particles are indeed produced by our star and consequently that nuclear fission reactions converting hydrogen into helium take place on the Sun”, continues Enrico Belotti. The results first obtained by Davis were later confirmed in a second experiment led by Masatoshi Koshiba at the Japanese Kamiokande detector (the project had actually been conceived for the study of proton decay, but then it turned out extremely interesting results on both solar and atmospheric neutrinos).

On February 23, 1987, a group led by Koshiba was also able to detect the neutrinos produced by a superno va explosion: an extremely rare phenomenon that has not since taken place again, so that to this day that supernova and the Sun remain the only proven neutrino sources in the Cosmos.
“In those same years other important experiments for the study of neutrinos have become active”, adds Enrico Bellotti. “In particular, in 1982 the Italian Parliament approved Antonino Zichichi’s proposal to build a great laboratory for the study of subnuclear physics and astrophysics under the Gran Sasso. In this same laboratory was started the Gallex experiment, led by Till Kirsten, who was the first in the world to reveal low energy solar neutrinos in the middle of the 90s. Low-energy neutrinos make up the majority of the neutrinos produced by the sun, but they are also the hardest to detect. The results obtained by Gallex provided final proof of the energy production mechanisms inside the Sun. Today research in the neutrino field continues and Italy is one of the most important contributors. At the Gran Sasso an experiment using gallium atoms as detectors is in course. Moreover, the Borexino instrument, which will make even more refined measurements possible, is still under construction. Big experiments are also being carried out in Canada and the Caucasus”. The Gran Sasso laboratories house the Lvd experiment, as well: the most sensitive observatory in the world for neutrinos produced by the explosion of supernovae.

Born in Genoa in 1931, Riccardo Giacconi earned his degree at the University of Milan. Now an American citizen, he comes from the school of Occhialini and Bruno Rossi, two great scientists that collaborated at creating the Infn. Moreover, both were very knowledgeable about cosmic rays and the techniques used to detect them.
Giacconi was one of the first researchers to base his observation of the sky on X-ray emissions. Since times immemorial the study of the universe was limited to the observation of the light that came from it and reached the Earth. In 1949 Herbert Friedman was the first to register a feeble signal of X-ray emission from the solar corona. He used the information coming from a detector mounted on a rocket, since X-rays are unable to pierce the atmosphere. Nonetheless, between the ‘50s and the ‘60s the idea began to form that it would be useless to continue this line of research by building bigger and bigger detectors and telescopes, since the signal was so weak. It was thanks to the insistence of the group led by Bruno Rossi that objections were abandoned and Giacconi was able to launch the instrument he had invented into Space on June 18th, 1962. This instrument provided the first proof of the existence of X-ray sources outside the Solar System.
“In the course of the following years X-ray based astronomy developed enormously. It was followed by astronomy based on gamma-rays, another form of electromagnetic radiation which is particularly energetic. Gamma rays seem to be produced by galaxies that have a black hole in their interior, whose mass is the same as many billion Suns. At the moment there are no instruments measuring gamma rays in Space, but the Infn has a key role on an international basis in this sector. Infn is now participating in two important projects: Agile, wholly Italian and in collaboration with Asi and Cnr, which will be launched in 2004, and Glast, an international project whose launch is programmed for 2006”, says Guido Barbiellini Amidei of the Infn and national representative of the Glast experiment.

We recall that the detection of gravitational waves is a new fronteer in the study of the Universe. In this field too Italy works in the front lines. In particular, two gravitational antennae are collecting data, at the Frascati and Legnaro Infn laboratories. Moreover, the Virgo interferometer is being activated, a collaboration between the Infn and the French Cnrs situated near Pisa.


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