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October 7, 2008
Updated October 10, 11:10 AM ET. Also appeared in print Oct. 13, 2008, p. 8


Nobel Prize In Physics

Three honored for developing fundamental theory that explains why matter persists

Elizabeth K. Wilson

The 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics pays homage to symmetry breaking, an abstruse but critical theory in physics that explains why matter should have persisted after the Big Bang. Developed in the 1960s and '70s, symmetry breaking also led to predictions about new types of quarks, which are subatomic particles that make up particles such as protons.

Nambu University of Chicago
Kobayashi KEK
Maskawa Kyoto University

The prize will be shared by three researchers. Yoichiro Nambu, 87, of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, will receive half of the $1.4 million prize for, in the words of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, "the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics."

The other half of the prize will be shared by Makoto Kobayashi, 64, of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, in Tsukuba, Japan, and Toshihide Maskawa, 68, of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics at Japan's Kyoto University, "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature."

Nobel officials reached Kobayashi by phone in Japan during a press conference held at the Nobel Foundation, in Stockholm, announcing the prize. Kobayashi said he was "very glad" to have been honored. "It was a surprise—I did not expect it," he said.

After the Big Bang, a slight imbalance or "breaking" of symmetry between matter and antimatter particles allowed regular matter to establish its predominance in the universe. If that had not occurred, matter and antimatter would have existed in equal amounts, and the particles would have annihilated each other, professor Lars Bergstr??m, secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said at the press conference. "Because of this small breaking ... we can sit here," Bergstr??m said.

Symmetry breaking also has implications for chemistry, notes Richard L. Hahn, a nuclear chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. "The eventual creation of the chemical elements in the early stages of the universe is tied to these processes," he says.

"It is a delight to see these seminal works recognized," adds Roy A. Lacey, president of the ACS Division of Nuclear Chemistry & Technology and chemistry professor at State University of New York, Stony Brook.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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