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The Physics Nobel, Symmetry, and the Mundane

Some of the 2008 Nobel prize winners were announced today.

Of course my first inclination is to jump to the physics prize to see who won and why.

This year the Nobel physics winners are all about Symmetry and how it breaks-down in the universe.

Japanese-American Yoichiro Nambu shares the prize with Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa from Japan. Is that kind of like winning lotto and finding out that 2 other people won? I guess not since the money , though considerable at 1.4 million US, is ultimitely just a bit of icing on the cake for the Nobels.

All three studied a phenomenon in physics known as broken symmetry, which helps to explain the behavior of matter on the smallest scale, where the laws of physics seemingly break down or are ignored.

Nambu won the prize for his mathematical description of spontaneous broken symmetry.

Sheldon Glashow, a Boston University professor who won the 1979 Nobel for physics  said that Nambu’s “work was the basis for a series of developments that led to the construction of the standard model,…It really contributed to our understanding of physics in many domains.”

The standard model is the famous integration of elementary particles (all matter except dark matter) and the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces of nature. Only gravity is not included. Anyone who was an integral part of developing the standard model deserves a Nobel in my book.

Kobayashi and Maskawa share the prize for their work in helping explain the origin of broken symmetry
They predicted in 1972 a third family of quarks that were discovered many years later. They also applied the theory to the Big Bang to explain why there’s matter left in the universe instead of just nothing or all antimatter.

Symmetry in physics is a very important concept that describes how things are the same even after some fundamental changes take place. The main classes of symmetry are time, mirror(parity), and charge.

Time symmetry means that physical processes appear the same even if time flows backwards. Imagine a movie of billiards balls hitting each other. It makes sense if the film is going forwards or backwards.

Mirror or parity symmetry means that particles behave the same compared to a hypothetical mirror universe. If you hold the letter A up to a conventional mirror in your house, the letter looks the same.

Charge symmetry says that particles behave the same if their charge is reversed as long as other properties are the same. This is precisely the symmetry that broke down after the Big Bang.

If charge parity was perfect all the time then all the antimatter and matter in the early universe would have annihilated each other. Broken symmetry however produced one extra particle of matter for every 10 billion antimatter particles. It is this tiny amount of left-over particles that comprise the universe today. If this hadn’t happened…well…things would be pretty boring I would think.

Nambu and Kobayashi both said that they were surprised they were picked.

Maskawa, on the other hand, said he saw it coming.
“There is a pattern to how the Nobel Prize is awarded,” he said. “I did not think I would get the award up until last year, but I predicted it pretty much this year.”

I wonder what pattern he saw.

His other comment came as a surprise to me and kind of bummed me out.
Masakawa told reporters that as a scientist he wasn’t thrilled.
“The Nobel prize is a rather mundane thing,” he said.

Why would he say that? Was he thrilled as a “person” then?

Wouldn’t winning a Nobel be a great way to end your career?

Nobel prizes are many things. Mundane isn’t one of them.

1 comment to The Physics Nobel, Symmetry, and the Mundane

  • DLC

    Being generous, perhaps Masakawa is so involved in his scientific work that things such as the Nobel prize have less meaning. I’ve met some such people — their work mattered and anything else was mundane nonsense. Even in some cases of men who forget to trim their fingernails or cut their hair when it gets in the way of work.

    Or maybe the guy’s just a jerk. . . hard to tell, third hand.

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