'Broken Symmetry' of Particles Yields Physics Nobel (Update4)
By Frances Schwartzkopff
Oct. 7 (Bloomberg) -- An American and two Japanese physicists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing how subatomic particles that are supposed to act similarly sometimes don't, leading to a better explanation of how the universe was formed and helping to identify new particles.
The winners were American Yoichiro Nambu, 87, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi Institute; Makoto Kobayashi, 64, who works at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization in Tsukuba, Japan; and Toshihide Maskawa, 68, of Kyoto University.
The three scientists helped define the concept of ``broken symmetry,'' influencing the standard model used by physicists to describe interactions between the tiniest particles in the universe, the Stockholm-based Nobel Foundation said. Kobayashi and Maskawa helped explain the origin of broken symmetry, while Nambu discovered how it works, the foundation said.
``The standard model relies on this mechanism,'' said Ties Behnke, a senior scientist at the Deutsches Elektronen- Synchrotron, a research center in Hamburg, in a telephone interview. ``Without it, the model couldn't explain our observations.''
A piece of matter may be like a set table in which each particle, in choosing a direction to spin, is represented by a dinner guest who must choose whether to use a bread plate to the left or the right. Spontaneous broken symmetry occurs when one guest uses the dishes only to one side, and the rest of the guests follow suit, Behnke said.
Forming the Universe
The theory helps to explain how the universe was formed, the Nobel Foundation said. The Big Bang should have created equal amounts of matter and antimatter that canceled each other out under the fundamental law of symmetry. Instead, the tiniest building blocks of the universe somehow bucked the laws, leading to the creation of more matter than antimatter.
Nambu, in 1960, was the first to apply the theory of spontaneous broken symmetry, already used to describe how magnetism works, to elementary particles.
He successfully explained why particles known as quarks can't float freely outside of protons and, in the process, proved the validity of applying the idea to the field. His mathematical theories now permeate the so-called standard model of quarks and leptons, the building blocks of atoms, and the forces that govern them.
Nambu's ``work was the basis for a series of developments that led to the construction of the standard model,'' said Sheldon Glashow, a Boston University professor who won the 1979 Nobel for physics. ``It really contributed to our understanding of physics in many domains.''
Nambu came to the U.S. from Japan in 1952, to the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton, New Jersey, research center where Albert Einstein had been a faculty member until his death in 1955. Nambu joined the University of Chicago as a research associate in 1956 and has been a professor emeritus since 1991. He became a U.S. citizen in 1970.
``It was a surprise, I didn't expect it,'' Nambu said today during a press briefing. ``My wife didn't believe it for 30 minutes.''
Kobayashi and Maskawa studied other subatomic deviations from the law of symmetry, applying the theory to the Big Bang and correctly predicting in 1972 that an undiscovered, third family of quarks existed.
Matter and Anti-Matter
``This work explains there is a small flaw in the symmetry between matter and anti-matter, that they're not perfect mirror images of each other,'' said Andy Parker, a professor of high energy physics at Cambridge University, in a telephone interview. ``The world could have been made entirely of antimatter if the symmetry had been the other way. This tells us that there is a real difference.''
Using the world's biggest magnetic loop, physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research aim to identify that difference, Parker said. The project is among four experiments that scientists will conduct using the Large Hadron Collider. The 27-kilometer long (16 mile) magnetic loop will seek to generate conditions similar to what happened one thousandth of a millionth of a second after the start of time.
Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was the first to receive the Nobel Prize for physics, in 1901, after discovering X-rays. Last year's prize went to Albert Fert of France and Peter Gruenberg of Germany for their independent discovery of giant magnetoresistance, a technology that has made it possible to miniaturize hard disks for computers and music players.
Prize for Medicine
France's Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier and German virologist Harald zur Hausen yesterday received the Nobel Prize for medicine for identifying viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer.
The Nobel Foundation awards the prizes each year for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature, to as many as three people in each category. Each prize comes this year with an award of 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4 million.)
Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895, stipulating in his will that most of his estate be invested and the proceeds awarded annually to people who have ``conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.'' Nobel died in 1896, and the foundation granted the first awards in 1901.
To contact the reporter on this story: Frances Schwartzkopff in Copenhagen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: October 7, 2008 15:56 EDT