Speed read: The Importance of Asymmetry

Luckily for us, the Universe is not symmetrical, at least at the subatomic level. If it was, the newly formed matter at the Universe’s birth would have been annihilated by an equal and opposite amount of antimatter, and nothingness would have resulted. Instead, a small imbalance, or asymmetry, in the amount of matter and antimatter created led to a slight excess of matter, from which we are all eventually formed. Such ‘broken symmetry’ is one key to our existence

Understanding symmetry, or the lack of it, is an ongoing task, and the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics rewarded two discoveries concerning symmetry violation in the field of particle physics. In the 1960s Yoichiro Nambu, who had been working on asymmetries underlying superconductivity, was the first to model how broken symmetry can occur spontaneously at the subatomic level. The mathematical descriptions he formulated helped refine the standard model of particle physics, the current working theory that best explains much, but not all, of the way that fundamental particles and the forces that govern their behaviour interact to create the known Universe.

In the early 1970s, Kobayashi and Maskawa formulated a model that explained certain symmetry violations that had recently surprised observers in particle physics experiments. Their model suggested that the collection of subatomic particles known at the time were insufficient to explain the observed behaviours, and predicted the existence of as yet undiscovered elementary particles. It did not, however, specify precisely what form these particles should take. Kobayashi and Maskawa hypothesized the existence of a third family of quarks, which are some of the building blocks from which all matter and antimatter is formed. They then had to wait almost three decades for the experimental results that would verify their hypothesis. The existence of all three families was finally confirmed when the last member was observed in the mid 1990s.

By Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief, Nobelprize.org
First published 8 October 2008

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