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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, three theoretical physicists won the Nobel Prize for their work on the Breakdown of Symmetries in the Laws of Nature. We non-physicists see symmetry in people's faces, in snowflakes. But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, these Nobel winners think about symmetry as it relates to the fundamental workings of the universe.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yoichiro Nambu is 87 years old. He lives in Chicago, and he got woken up early this morning by a phone call. It was Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences telling him that he'd won the Nobel Prize for a paper he wrote on something called spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics. It helped explain some of the fundamental forces of nature and why different particles have different masses.

Dr. YOICHIRO NAMBU (Physicist, Nobel Prize Winner): My paper came out 1960, I believe.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: 1960?

Mr. NAMBU: Yes.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So that was 48 years ago?

Mr. NAMBU: Yes, that's correct.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So that's a long time.

Mr. NAMBU: Yes, long, long time ago.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nambu came to the United States in 1952 and is now a citizen. He's worked at the University of Chicago for decades. Some of his colleagues in Chicago say the honor is long overdue. Joe Lykken is a particle physicist at Fermilab.

Dr. JOE LYKKEN (Particle Physicist, Fermilab): We'd been talking about it for years that he deserved it, and that he's such a shy and humble man that those kinds of people don't always win the prize. But the Nobel committee has finally wised up and done the right thing for him.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Nambu will share his prize and around $1.4 million with two researchers in Japan. Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa explored another kind symmetry breaking. Their work back in the 1970s led to the prediction that physicists should eventually find new types of the subatomic particles known as Quarks, and experiments proved them right. Joe Lykken of Fermilab says that work built on the research of an Italian physicist named Nicola Cabibbo.

Mr. LYKKEN: These three people are - Cabibbo, Kobayashi, and Maskawa - are mentioned so often together that we usually just say C-K-M rather than saying all three of their multisyllabic names.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So some scientists might wonder why Cabibbo wasn't honored by the committee. But the rules say the Nobel can only go to three scientists. Philip Schewe, a spokesperson for the American Institute of Physics, says this year's award is well-deserved.

Mr. PHILIP SCHEWE (Spokesperson, American Institute of Physics): These three gentlemen provided theories that explain one of the most fundamental aspects of existence, how symmetric is the universe? We sort of instinctively want the universe to be symmetric. We want it to be regular, and the fact that it's not is kind of interesting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's more than just interesting. It's what makes life possible. For example, when the Big Bang created the cosmos some 14 billion years ago, it didn't create equal amounts of matter and antimatter. That's a good thing because they would have canceled each other out. Scientists are still trying to understand why there was just a tiny bit of extra matter, a little asymmetry that became the seed of our universe. The person who figures that one out might someday win a Nobel Prize.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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