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Physicist hunting dark matter receives Order of Canada

Pekka Sinervo and Gov.-Gen Julie Payette

Pekka Sinervo is a world renowned scientist whose field of expertise is “truth” and “beauty”– not the philosophical concepts, but the subatomic particles he hopes will lead to the discovery of dark matter.

Last December, Sinervo joined a select group of high achieving Canadians who were named to the Order of Canada. On March 14, he was invested into the order at a ceremony in Ottawa.

In announcing his accession to the exclusive club, the governor general’s office noted that Sinervo “is a renowned leader in particle physics. Professor and former dean of the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto, and former senior vice-president of research at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He has furthered our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe. Notably, he was instrumental in the discovery of the top quark and the Higgs boson particle.”

His work has been quite demanding, taking him away from home for as many as 130 days a year. Lately, he’s cut back on the foreign travel, but the data he collected from his studies will keep him and his team busy for next six months, if not longer.

As Sinervo explains it, as you get down to the basic building blocks of matter, smaller even than protons and neutrons, you’ll find those elusive quarks. Two kinds of quarks exist for a short period and decay, but two others – named “truth” and “beauty,” or top quarks and bottom quarks – stick around (that’s not the scientific term). Truth is the heavier of the sub-atomic particles – “It’s the top quark,” he said – and that’s the one Sinervo studies. Often, his studies have taken him to the Collider Detector at Fermilab near Chicago and CERNs Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

What Sinervo does is not exactly rocket science. Actually, it sounds a lot more complicated than that.

He’s attempting to find evidence for dark matter, which is believed to comprise 85 per cent of the mass of the universe.

“We’re trying to find evidence of that being produced in the collisions,” he said. “If we find that, it would be monumental.”

“There’s nothing earth-shattering yet,” he said.


When he’s not slamming subatomic particles into each other, he’s busy serving as president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism. He’s held that title for two years, and before that, he served as president of Temple Emanu-El in Toronto.

Currently, the council is working on an new strategic plan for the Canadian Reform movement, “to understand how we as a community can strengthen,” he said.

The council is considering the question of what two or three priorities the movement should adopt in the next five years.

Interestingly, there are skill sets in science that can be useful in his role as president of the council, he said.

“It helps to be quantitative and to like assessment,” he said. “I’m pretty numeric.”

But, “there are a lot of things you can’t count that are important,” he added. “You can’t put a number on what is the strength or health of a congregation or institution.”

As for his Order of Canada, Sinervo, who was born in Finland, said, “I was surprised and humbled that the recognition, that there were people out there who thought I deserved it.”

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