spontaneous broken symmetry, nobel prize
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Toshihide Masukawa

Trio Shares Nobel Prize in Physics

October 07, 2008 02:04 PM
by Emily Coakley
The 2008 Nobel Prize for physics has been awarded to three researchers whose work has helped others explore the universe’s origins.

Work in Subatomic Physics Honored This Year

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded three men the Nobel Prize in Physics for their theories relating to broken symmetry, Scientific American reported.

Nobel winner Yoichiro Nambu first created his spontaneous broken symmetry theory in the 1960s, the magazine said.

The Nobel committee used an orange to illustrate his theory, said Scientific American: “while it’s useful to describe the fruit as a sphere, it actually deviates from sphericity in subtle ways when examined up close.”

The other two awardees, Toshihide Maskawa and Makoto Kobayashi, theorized another family of quarks, or subatomic particles, in the 1970s, according to Scientific American.

“They suggested that in addition to the two generations of quarks known at the time, there should be a third generation; and this was before the third generation was discovered,” said Jim Sterling, a Cambridge University physics professor, of Maskawa and Kobayashi’s work, the BBC reported.

Nambu, 87, was born in Japan and is an American citizen. He is a physics professor at the University of Chicago, according to the BBC.

Kobayashi is at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tukuba, Japan, and Maskawa is at Kyoto University’s Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics, Scientific American reports.

Opinion & Analysis: ‘Well-deserved’; symmetry significance explained

Peter Woit, a Columbia University mathematics professor and author, said the committee’s choice of Nambu, “is well-deserved and rewards one of the deepest, surprising, and most important ideas in particle theory, that of spontaneous symmetry breaking.”

On his blog Not Even Wrong, Woit added: “Nambu has often been mentioned as a candidate for the award, and it’s surprising that it has taken nearly 50 years for it to come about. I’m a bit curious about how often Nobel Prizes in other fields are awarded for work done a half-century ago.”

Clifford Johnson, a University of Southern California physics professor, explained what symmetries in physics mean on his blog, Asymptotia:

“It’s all about what might be better termed ‘hidden symmetries’ in Nature, showing that the world (the structure of fundamental particle physics, specifically) is in fact much simpler if looked at in the right way. It is a powerful technique that does not just propose what the hidden patterns (symmetries) are, but tells you what the consequences of those patterns are in the form of predictions such that physicists can go out and measure those predictions and verify the existence of those symmetries. In some sense, this type of approach is the driving force behind a lot of fundamental particle physics these days—finding the hidden, simpler structure that lurks under the surface.”

Related Topic: The Large Hadron Collider

Nambu’s theory “is highly relevant” to the world’s largest particle accelerator, called the Large Hadron Collider, according to the BBC. Researchers are using the accelerator to look for antimatter and a theoretical particle that helps explain how mass is created. There were concerns when the LHC was started up in September that it could create antimatter, black holes and wipe out the Earth. But the machine malfunctioned, and repairs are going to delay research for several weeks.

Reference: The basics of physics

FindingDulcinea has a Web Guide to High School Physics that can help you learn the basics of this complex branch of science.

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