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[Summer series] Olivier Drapier - The neutrino effect

Olivier Drapier, from the Leprince-Ringuet laboratory of École Polytechnique, participates with his team in the international T2K experiment in Japan which studies the quantum oscillations of neutrinos and antineutrinos.

©Silvère Leprovost

Olivier Drapier’s passion for physics and for its transmission was inspired by a high school teacher who was a fervent admirer of Louis Leprince-Ringuet. Little did the teenager know that he would join, years later, the laboratory of École polytechnique that bears the name of this famous physicist.

In addition to his research activities, Olivier Drapier devotes much of his time to popularizing his work, addressing himself to one and all: to college and high school students, to the general public, even to inmates. At l’X, the physicist introduced masterclasses in which high school students work with real physics data and videoconference with scientists from CERN, the European organization for nuclear research in Geneva. Already during his Master's studies in Lyon I, he was selected to take part in a summer program for students at the Geneva research center. “I worked with the NA38 Collaboration studying high-energy heavy ion collisions,” the researcher recalls enthusiastically. Won over by the internship, Olivier Drapier made this the subject of his thesis, and then pursued his research on the subject at the CNRS in the Institute of Nuclear Physics of Lyon.

The year 2001 marked his arrival at the Leprince-Ringuet laboratory of École Polytechnique. Alongside Michel Gonin, research director at the CNRS, he continued studying heavy ion collisions before focusing his attention on neutrinos. This elementary particle can be detected during nuclear reactions and radioactive phenomena. “There are three known types of neutrinos: electron, muon, and tau. Each with different characteristics. We have known since 1998 that they can oscillate, meaning they can change from one type to another,” the researcher explains. Olivier Drapier participated with his team in the international T2K experiment in Japan and was there in 2012 for the first direct observation of a muon neutrino to electron neutrino transformation.  “It was as exciting to me as the launch of a rocket,” the scientist recalls.

In 2016, an article was published in Nature on the composition of the Universe based on recent T2K research. “One of the great mysteries of physics is the prevalence of matter over antimatter in the Universe, when equal quantities of each should have been produced in the Big Bang,” says Olivier Drapier. “This could be explained by a difference in the behavior of neutrinos and antineutrinos,” says the physicist. Researchers from the T2K experiment are studying the quantum oscillations of neutrinos and antineutrinos. Initial findings reveal the greater ability of neutrinos to transform, compared to antineutrinos. “It will still take a generation of experiments to sharpen these observations and thereby substantiate  this first indication,” adds Olivier Drapier while gathering the elements for a forthcoming conference. That week he was giving a talk on gravitational waves at l’Université Populaire du Savoir de Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in the department of Essonne.

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Find all the portraits of researchers of our summer series, here.