8 October 2008

Standard Model work wins Nobel Physics Prize

Agence France-Presse
Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa of Japan and Yoichiro Nambu of the United States won the 2008 Nobel Physics Prize Tuesday for groundbreaking theoretical work in fundamental particles.
Toshihide Maskawa

Japanese physicist Toshihide Maskawa speaks at a press conference in Kyoto after he was named one of the winners. Japan's Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, and Yoichiro Nambu of the U.S. won the 2008 Nobel Physics Prize for groundbreaking theoretical work in fundamental particles. Credit: AFP

STOCKHOLM: Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa of Japan and Yoichiro Nambu of the United States won the 2008 Nobel Physics Prize Tuesday for groundbreaking theoretical work in fundamental particles.

The three were lauded for their work in explaining anomalies in concepts of the nature of matter and the origins of the universe, created in the “Big Bang” 14 billion years ago.

Nambu, 87, won one half of the prize for work in the 1960s for discovering the mechanism of “spontaneous broken symmetry” in sub-atomic physics, the Nobel committee said. The duo received the other half “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry,” the jury said.

Spontaneous symmetry-breaking

Nambu was hailed for developing a concept called “spontaneous symmetry-breaking” in superconductivity and in basic particles.

These theories are a keystone of the so-called Standard Model of physics, which explains in a unified way three of the four fundamental forces of nature: strong, weak and electromagnetic. The fourth is gravity.

“Spontaneous broken symmetry conceals nature’s order under an apparently jumbled surface,” the Nobel panel said. “It has proved to be extremely useful, and Nambu’s theories permeate the Standard Model of elementary particle physics… The Model unifies the smallest building blocks of all matter and three of nature’s four forces in one single theory.”

In the 1970s, Kobayashi and Maskawa went on to explain this broken symmetry. Their theory required that the Standard Model be enlarged by three novel families of sub-atomic particles called quarks.

Their hypothesis was borne out nearly three decades later in experiments.

Deadly opposite of matter

Kobayashi, 64, is a professor emeritus at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organisation in Tsukuba, while Maskawa, 68, holds the same title at the Yukawa institute for Theoretical Physics at Kyoto University. Nambu is a professor emeritus at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Underpinning the theory of asymmetry is the discovery that immediately after the Big Bang, much more matter was created than its deadly opposite, antimatter.

This excess of matter became the seed of the universe, filling it with galaxies, stars and planets – and eventually life. What lies behind this mysterious symmetry violation has sparked a massive field of research.

The most ambitious experimental step was taken last month, with the unveiling of the the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest particle smasher, in Geneva.

Maskawa said he was delighted that his forerunner, Nambu, had become a laureate. “I am happy that Mr. Nambu has won it. I thought there was a bigger chance this year,” Maskawa said, as quoted by Jiji Press.

Kobayashi meanwhile said he was stunned to get the news from the Nobel committee.”It’s a great honour. I couldn’t believe it,” he told Swedish Radio in an interview, adding that he “didn’t expect it.”

The High Energy Accelerator Research Organisation (KEK) near Tokyo, where Kobayashi works, saluted the winners. “It’s great news for KEK as well. Professor Kobayashi, Professor Maskawa and Professor Nambu have all made great contributions,” said KEK spokesman Yohei Morita.

French physicist Yves Sacquin, of the Institute for Research into the Fundamental Laws of the Universe in Paris, said the “Kobayashi-Maskawa (theories) are the template for our daily work.”

“All the world started looking”

He said: “As soon as Kobayashi and Maskawa predicted there must be novel quarks, all the physicists in the world started to look for these new particles.”

On Monday, French and German scientists credited with the discovery of the viruses behind AIDS and cervical cancer won the Medicine Prize, the first of the prestigious awards to be announced this year.

The Chemistry Prize laureates will be announced on Wednesday, followed by the Literature Prize on Thursday and the Peace Prize on Friday. The Economics Prize will wrap up the awards on October 13.

Laureates receive a gold medal, a diploma and 10 million Swedish kronor (1.42 million dollars, 1.02 million euros) which can be split between up to three winners per prize.

The formal awarding of the prizes will take place in Stockholm on December 10.

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