Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why there is something rather than nothing

This last week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for discoveries concerning the concept of broken symmetry. The awardees, Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa, were all born in Japan, but Nambu (who garnered half of the prize) is a US citizen and works out of the Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Now what, one might thoughtfully ask, has this got to do with home and hearth?

For one thing, these three gentlemen figured out why it is that we can even exist in this universe. At all. Broken symmetry is one of those ideas that's actually central to a theory of everything, in that it answers the question of why is there something rather than nothing--a question raised primarily in theological circles and regarded by some as a central issue in philosophy. This question never really perplexed me particularly because 1) Who cares? I mean, there is something, so why is why a problem? and 2) If there is a problem, physicists will certainly figure it out eventually.

And, indeed, these three guys did. The basic idea as explained on All Things Considered the other day, is that if there were perfect symmetry between matter and anti matter, nothing would exist because the two would cancel one another out. But the fact that the symmetry was broken, and there's more matter than anti matter, is why there's stuff rather than no stuff.

I can't even begin to understand all the forces involved in this, or even the basic physics underlying the process. But the Wikipedia article on spontaneous symmetry breaking is pretty helpful, and so is PhysOrg's article, Broken Symmetry: Answering the Solace of Quantum.

Were it not for this particular phenomenon, I wouldn't have to worry about learning to love the prairie. I suppose I could wax all kinds of poetic about what it all means, but for the moment, I'm just happy that these three men were finally recognized for work that helps me understand my universe just a little bit better.

Now, if CERN can get the Large Hadron Collider back online, it will have been a good year for particle physics.

Image credit: Big Bang, by C├ędric Sorel, via Wikimedia Commons.

4 comments:

jenzai studio said...

ooooo wonderful! I missed the All Things Considered piece. Thank you for linking it. This could explain so much about my life! Broken symmetry really resonates...

Owlfarmer said...

Yeah--it does offer enormous metaphorical possibilities: yin/yang and all that. I'm famous for dinging scientific principles used badly as metaphors, but this one is almost irresistible.

krimzon11 said...

Congrats to those guys for figuring it out. I agree with you that scientists have a knack for figuring out the simple stuff that the rest of us can't quite pinpoint. I think the discovery helps art make sense. The concept resembles asymmetry to me, without it a piece of art or design has no sense of action, asymmetry creates flow, eye movement and even emotion. Not that symmetry isn't just as good, it just has a different function. Things in the natural world may mimic symmetry but overall theres usually something that makes nature asymmetrical. So why wouldn't existence/non-existence, or anti-matter/matter be the same way? I'm learning more and more that black and white concepts are really just simple ways of understanding, and that there is a bigger grey area than most people think.

Owlfarmer said...

I'm actually not at all surprised that it was Japanese scientists who figured this out. When you spend as much time as I do looking at Japanese prints (not to mention my experience as a child in Japan), the asymmetry becomes part of how one thinks. It's probably what made those prints so popular in the late nineteenth century, too. Maybe the European-American world view is too symmetrical by nature . . .