Presentation Speech by professor Gösta Ekspong of the Royal Academy of Sciences
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
By decision of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, this year’s Nobel Prize for physics has been awarded to Professor Burton Richter and to Professor Samuel Ting for their pioneering work in the discovery of a heavy elementary particle of a new kind.
This discovery has opened new vistas and given rise to great activity in all laboratories around the world where resources are available. It brings with it the promise of a deeper understanding of all matter and of several of its fundamental forces.
Elementary particles are very small compared to our human dimensions. They are smaller than viruses and molecules and atoms, even smaller than the tiny nucleus of most atoms. They are of great importance when it comes to understanding the basic structure and the basic forces of the material world. In some cases they can even be of importance to society. A basic philosophy is that the material units on any level of subdivision derive their properties from the levels below.
Seventy years ago the first elementary particle was involved in a Nobel Prize. This was at a time when no valid picture of atoms had been formulated. In his Nobel lecture in 1906, J.J. Thompson spoke about his discovery of the electron as one of the bricks of which atoms are built up. Today we know that the electron plays a decisive role in many sciences and technologies and through them in many walks of life – it binds together the molecules of our own bodies, it carries the electricity which makes our lamps shine and it literally draws up the pictures on the TV-screens.
Forty years ago Carl David Andersson was awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the positron – which is the antiparticle to the electron. In the presentation of the award in 1936, it was mentioned that twins of one electron and one positron could be born out of the energy coming from radiation. The reverse can also happen. If the two opposite types of particle meet they can disappear and the energy, which can never be destroyed, shows up as radiation. Only in recent years has this description been enriched through experiments at higher energies, where, among many researchers, both Richter and Ting have contributed.
It is with these two particles that the Nobel laureates Ting and Richter have again experimented in most successful ways. Ting discovered the new particle when he investigated how twins of one electron and one positron are born at very high energies. Richter arranged for electrons and positrons to meet in head-on collisions and the new particle appeared when conditions were exactly right. Both have carried out their researches at laboratories with large particle accelerators and other heavy equipment, which take the place of microscopes when it comes to investigating the smallest structures of matter, Ting and his team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology set up their cleverly designed apparatus at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Richter and his teams from Stanford and Berkeley built their sophisticated instrumentation complex at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. In the two different laboratories and with very different methods both found almost simultaneously a clear signal that a new, heavy particle was involved – born in violent collisions and dying shortly afterwards. The letter J was chosen as name at Brookhaven, the greek letter y (psi) at Stanford.
The multitude of elementary particles can be beautifully grouped together in families with well-defined boundaries. Missing members have been found in many cases, in some cases they still remain to be found. All seem to derive their properties from a deeper level of subdivision where only a few building bricks, called quarks, are required.
The unique thing about the J-y particle is that it does not belong to any of the families as they were known before 1974. Further particles have been discovered resembling the J-y one. The reappraisal of particle family structures now required has already begun in terms of a new dimension, corresponding to the new fourth quark already suggested in other contexts.
Most of the recently found particles of normal type can be described as hills of varying height and width in the energy landscape of the physicists, not too unlike pictures of the mounds, barrows and pyramids which the archeologists take an interest in. In the landscape of particles the new J-y surprised physicists by being more than twice as heavy as any comparable particle and yet a thousand times more narrow. One can perhaps better imagine the surprise of an explorer in the jungle if he suddenly were to discover a new pyramid, twice as heavy as the largest one in Tikal and yet a thousand times narrower and thus higher. After checking and rechecking that he is not the victim of an optical illusion he would certainly claim that such a remarkable mausoleum must entail the existence of a hidden culture.
Professor Richter, Professor Ting,
I have compared you to explorers of almost unknown territory in which you have discovered new startling structures. Like many great explorers you have had with you teams of skilful people. I would like you to convey to them our congratulations upon these admirable achievements. Your own unrelenting efforts in the field of electron-positron research over a large number of years and your visions have been of outstanding importance and have now culminated in the dramatic discovery of the J-y particle. You have greatly influenced and enriched your research field: the physics of elementary particles after November 1974 is recognized to be different from what it was before.
I have the pleasure and the honour on behalf of the Academy to extend to you our warmest congratulations and I now invite you to receive your prizes from the hands of His Majesty the King.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.