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Chicago Professor Shares Nobel Prize In Physics

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A University of Chicago professor won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics Monday. Yoichiro Nambu, a Tokyo-born U.S. citizen, shares the prize with two Japanese scientists. Nambu gets half the prize for the discovery of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This is the week that the Royal Academy of Sciences in Sweden is awarding the Nobel Prizes. And if you did not get an early morning call today, I'm sorry to report that you did not win the prize for physics which is out. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us who did. Good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. Who won?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it was three people actually. They're all theoretical particle physicists, and they study the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The first was Yoichiro Nambu from the University of Chicago, and there were also two researchers in Japan who are named Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa.

INSKEEP: Fundamental building blocks of the universe, that sounds pretty basic, but I bet it's not.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, let me just tell you what the Nobel Committee said they got the prize for. The citation says two things. First, quote, "The discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics." And, quote, "The discovery of the origin of broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature," unquote.

INSKEEP: OK, OK. If I'm with a human family rather than a family of quarks, what does this mean to me?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, basically you have to know that physicists like things to be simple and symmetrical and beautiful and elegant. Unfortunately, the universe wouldn't exist if it was symmetrical. That's because you've got matter, and you've got anti-matter, and if the universe was symmetrical - you know, completely even on both sides - they'd cancel each other out, and there'd be nothing here. We wouldn't be here having this conversation, but we are here...

INSKEEP: Like the way that sound waves can cancel each other out. That would be the problem. OK, all right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But we are here, right? So there's obviously some sort of asymmetry in the universe. There's some sort of slight excess of matter after the big bang that was the seed for this whole universe that we live in. So this gets to the issue of subatomic particles. And with nice symmetrical equations, the kind that physicists would normally like to write, that make them happy, there would be no way to explain why subatomic particles, all these building blocks of the universe, have different masses.

Some are big, heavy things, some are light. And one of the Nobel winners found a way to get around all this mass. And out of his work came this idea, some other researchers built on it and came up with this idea that there's this magical particle out there called the Higgs particle, and that's been called the Dodd particle. And this would help explain why things have mass. And this is what they're looking for. Remember that big new particle accelerator that they've just been building in Europe that they're trying to get started.

INSKEEP: Oh sure, there's television - dramatic television pictures of this thing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right, right.

INSKEEP: It's huge, huge.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So at that big machine in Europe, they're going to be - called the Large Hadron Collider - they're going to be looking for this particle that has mass. So that's one of the guys. So the other two researchers cited looked at some weird experimental physics results, and they predicted that there had to be some other subatomic particles out there that would explain these weird results they got. And this would be a third family of what are called quarks. And they turned out to be right, so they get the prize.

INSKEEP: I just want to put this into the most basic terms. These guys are trying to figure out the most fundamental rules of how things work, of how the universe works, of how tiny particles work. And after all these years of research and thinking, we still don't really understand it. And they're trying to come up with theories that would explain the holes in all the theories we already have. Is that right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Absolutely, yeah.

INSKEEP: And so what do you get for that kind of work?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the Nobel Prize in terms of dollars is $1.4 million, which they'll all be sharing. And they also get an actual medal. It's like a gold medal with Nobel on one side of it.

INSKEEP: Oh, which they can now try to figure out what's going on in the subatomic particles of their medal, I suppose.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's gold, so yeah, they can work on that.

INSKEEP: Nell, thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

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