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Fundamental Physics work scoops the Nobel Prize October 7, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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The Royal Swedish Academy of Science has just awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics to three theoretical physicists working in the field of fundamental subatomic particle physics. Read their press release here. Prof. Yoichiro Nambu of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago received half the prize “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic particles”; the other half went jointly to Prof. Makoto Kobayashi of the KEK Laboratory and Prof. Toshihide Maskawa of the University of Kyoto, both in Japan, “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature”. Congratulations to them and all their collaborators!

I think the journalists who had assembled at the press conference were a bit flabbergasted by the subject (I’m no expert either), as spontaneous symmetry breaking doesn’t quite speak to the imagination as does, say, dark energy or the cosmic microwave background radiation – but I’m probably biased :-). But as the speaker explained, symmetry breaking has proved crucial for our understanding of the physical Universe. The process has permitted the Universe to contain more matter than antimatter, leading to the formation of all the stuff we see around us, and indeed of us ourselves! It’s a really fascinating area of study, where particle physics and astronomy meet.

It’s not the end of the story, however. Additional complexity, tracing back to the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, is needed to paint a full picture of the processes that led to the formation of matter as it is seen today. The Large Hadron Collider was designed for exactly this purpose: to mimic conditions after the Big Bang and create the exotic subatomic particles that will help complete our vision of the Standard Model of particle physics.

One of the winners, Prof. Kobayashi, was just 28 years old when he published the key paper in 1972 that got him the Nobel Prize today.

UPDATE: Check out Andrew Jaffe’s blog post, sounds like he knows much more about it than I do.

The people over at Wired also have an opinion.

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