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 Cédric Sorel, via Wikimedia Commons.