In 2015, Dr Art McDonald shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Japanese scientist Takaaki Kajita for their work on neutrinos – miniscule particles that are helping scientists answer fundamental questions about the cosmos.
McDonald calls his research “a further attempt to understand our universe in microscopic detail, but at the same time to understand things that influence how our universe evolved”.
“We are looking for these particles which were produced in the original Big Bang and are still in our galaxy.”
McDonald’s research was done in Canada at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, a lab specialising in dark matter and neutrinos. The Ontario lab is 2km (1.2 miles) underground in order to shield it from cosmic rays.
There are 500 researchers worldwide working on experiments at the lab, including one investigating a rare form of nuclear decay, which could help explain the development of matter in the early universe.
His team also has “a lot of common interests” with Canadian particle physicists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern).
“There’s a real advantage for Canadians to be plugged in internationally,” McDonald says.
Beyond his own work, McDonald says Canada is excelling at different kinds of science, including physics, genomics and biology.
“The accomplishment of the Ebola vaccine here in Canada is a real international success,” he says.
Like Dr McDonald, McGill University’s Vicky Kaspi spends her time probing the mysteries of the universe.
Kaspi has won a number of awards for her work, and was the first woman to win the Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for science and engineering.
The Texas-born astrophysicist, who has taught at MIT and Princeton, says being based in Canada has allowed her to have larger research team than the funding structure generally allows at US universities.
Among her projects is a collaboration between several universities and observatories – the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (Chime), a ground-breaking radio telescope.
Radio astronomy is one of the technologies developed and pioneered in Canada, Kaspi says.
Using computer processing technology originally designed for gaming and mobile phones, Chime will begin making precise measurements of the acceleration of the universe between 10 billion and eight billion years ago – the time period when the expansion of the universe began to speed up.
Kaspi says there’s a “spirit of camaraderie” among researchers in the country.
“There’s a little friendly competition sometimes but overall, with these big projects we’re talking about, people work really well together and we recognise that there’s strength in numbers.”
She says there’s a number of Canadian physicists making their mark in the field, including René Doyon, studying exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, Mark Halpern at the University of British Columbia and a colleague on Chime, and Ray Carlberg at the University of Toronto, working on the international Thirty Meter Telescope.