M A I N   N E W S

A physicist ahead of his time
Chandigarh-born Bindu A. Bambah recalls her supervisor, Nobel winner Yoichiro Nambu

Prof Yoichiro Nambu and his wife
Prof Yoichiro Nambu and his wife — A file photograph

COME October and the science junkies and academic geeks login to the site nobelprize.org to see the live announcement of Nobel prizes. For Indians, the first thing we check is whether an Indian got the Nobel prize and then we rejoice in the vicarious glory.

Then we find out if we have been personally affected by the Nobel prize. Perhaps the next best thing to winning the Nobel prize ourselves is, if somebody who is close to us, and who has shared his or her knowledge with us as our revered teacher, wins the Nobel prize. Then we are the legatee of his or her noble Nobel thoughts and revel in the shade of glory.

This year, I finally hit this jackpot when the Nobel prize in Physics for 2008 was announced. Half of it went to my Ph.D thesis supervisor Prof Yoichiro Nambu for "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics".

The other half is to be shared with Makato Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa for “the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks nature". These Nobel prizes have come in the wake of the CERN LHC (Big Bang) experiment and are a recognition of the fact that the search for the ultimate building blocks of the universe is a fundamental part of human nature and an expression of human civilisation.

While a religious person seeks these answers in organised religion, a scientist seeks the answers in the material world by following the scientific method. In particular, particle physicists seek a unity of all the forces in nature. A tool by which unification can take place is symmetry and the mathematics of group theory.

The unification takes place at very high energies such as those which occurred in the first few minutes of our universe after the big bang or at the energies which will be achievable at the LHC. At ordinary everyday energies the forces (electromagnetic, gravitational, weak (responsible for radioactivity) and strong (nuclear) manifest themselves differently.

A key to this unified picture is the spontaneous breaking of symmetry which Nambu discovered in 1961. The citation for the Nobel prize is only a fraction of the seminal contribution which he has made to physics. He is the founding father of string theory and conceived the notion of “colour charge” of quantum chromodynamics which explains the stability of matter.

A mild-mannered, modest man impeccably dressed in black suits, Prof. Nambu mystified us with his mind that made connections between such seemingly disparate ideas in physics, such as superconductivity and strings that hold quarks together in nuclei.

Many physicists commented on what we knew as his students, that Nambu always thought ahead of his time and I remember being told by many scientists that I should listen carefully to what he says, because it may seem unimportant today but it will be the science 10 years hence!

Some of the problems my students work on today are based on suggestions given by Prof. Nambu 25 years ago and they are still important. He is truly the particle physicist Cassandra in a good sense. It is thus fitting that the Nobel commitee finally recognised this great visionary of science in his 87th year, nearly 47 years after he opened the door for understanding the unity of the forces in this universe.

He continues to work even today on intriguing ideas, whose worth we shall only recognise in 10 years time. Prof. Nambu is a real fan of India and has had three Indian students-Prof. Sumit Das (University of Kentucky), Dr. Madhushree Mukherjee (Scientific American and best-selling author) and this writer. He is kept abreast with Indian philosophy by his good friend Prof. George Sudarshan and has a smiling Ganesha on his desk.

The writer is Professor of Physics, University of Hyderabad



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