Arthur B. McDonald: Biography & Nobel Prize

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Anyone interested in the field of physics and who is in search of information on famous physicists would appreciate this lesson. In this lesson, we will take a look at the life of one of the co-recipients for the Nobel Prize in Physics—Dr. Arthur McDonald.

Young Arthur

Arthur McDonald grew up in a loving and nurturing community called Sydney in Nova Scotia. McDonald's father was among those called upon to free Europe from the grasp of Nazism and fascism, leaving one-year-old Arthur with his mother while he worked to free Holland.

The schools McDonald attended in Sydney were filled with teachers who loved their students and seeing their students fulfill their potential. It was in these bygone days that McDonald formed his love for learning, specifically for mathematics. Along the way, in 1950s Nova Scotia, a socially active McDonald met his future wife, Janet, before leaving for Dalhousie University in Halifax.

While at university, McDonald was inspired by a physics professor who taught him that he could solve the mysteries of the world with mathematics and scientific discovery. McDonald realized that not only did he have a strong understanding of mathematics, but he also had a penchant for physics as well. After earning his bachelor's, McDonald remained at Dalhousie to earn his master's in physics. He also made the decision in these years to become an experimental physicist and, after graduation, set off on a collision course with scholarship and notoriety.

McDonald receiving the Nobel Prize
Arthur McDonald

Dr. McDonald

After convincing administrators at Dalhousie to sponsor him in a trip to the United States in an effort to inform undergraduates at Dalhousie of where to attend graduate school, McDonald was so impressed with the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) that he decided to earn his PhD in physics there. There, he worked in the Kellogg Laboratory in a steady mix of work and play. By day, there were seminars to attend in physics that spurred students to explore the new theories and test their attributes for veracity. By night, professors would have parties and mixers for students to discuss what they had learned in class in a more relaxed setting.

McDonald graduated from CalTech in 1969 and went on a tear, making a name for himself in the physics world. The following are achievements McDonald earned from 1969 through 1989:

  • 1969-1970 Rutherford Memorial Fellowship
  • 1969-1980 Postdoctoral Fellow, Assistant Research Officer, Associate Research Officer at Chalk University Nuclear Laboratory
  • 1980-1982 Senior Research Officer at Atomic Energy of Canada
  • 1982-1989 Professor of Physics at Princeton University
  • 1983 Fellow of the American Physical Society
  • 1989 Professor of Physics at Queen's University

Nobel Laureate

Much of McDonald's work in physics by the 1980s was on the Solar Neutrino Problem (SNP), where the neutrinos emitted from the sun are measured. In the early days of the SNP theories, neutrinos where measured in chlorine, but by the 1980s, physicists like McDonald had switched to water instead. By the time that McDonald was at Princeton he had moved on to looking at the radon gas produced from materials in water during neutrino testing in order to solve the SNP. By 1989, McDonald was working on a team to improve the Kamiokande detector, which measures neutrinos.

In the 1990s, McDonald expanded his reach in the field of neutrino study as the Director of the International Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Scientific Collaboration, which combined the efforts of many other institutes and physicists studying neutrinos. Through teamwork and McDonald's leadership, the collaboration paid off with publications on neutrinos.

In 1992, McDonald and his collaborators redesigned the Kamiokande detector into the Super Kamiokande, which can differentiate between the different kinds of neutrinos to determine their flavors (electron, muon, or tau). For this discovery, McDonald and his team were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on neutrino flavor in 2015.

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