Nambu's Nobel

Chicago’s downright Scandinavian weather on Wednesday provided a fitting backdrop for a little bit of Stockholm transplanted to Hyde Park—a special ceremony at International House to award the Nobel Prize in Physics to Professor Emeritus Yoichiro Nambu. Because the 87-year-old Nambu and his ailing wife couldn’t travel to Stockholm for the official ceremony that day, Jonas Hafström, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, brought Nambu’s medal to him.

The musicians of Millar Brass open up the ceremony

The Chicago event began with a trumpet flourish from the Millar Brass. President Zimmer welcomed the crowd (physics faculty and graduate students, University staff, and assorted VIPs) and then stepped aside for taped highlights from Stockholm, where Nambu’s corecipients, Japanese physicists Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, received their medals. After King Carl XVI Gustaf was shown presenting Kobayashi and Maskawa with their medals, Hafström presented Nambu with his.

Nambu took to the podium to explain spontaneous symmetry breaking—the concept he pioneered in the 1960s that won him the Nobel. A system in a symmetric state is like a crowd of people looking about aimlessly, he said, favoring no particular direction. But when everyone in the crowd turns and looks in one direction—“as you are doing right now”—then that symmetry has been broken. Applying this concept to particle physics helped physicists to unify electromagnetism with the strong and weak nuclear forces, a milestone in the history of particle physics’ Standard Model.

Hafström presents Nambu with his diploma and medal

After a toast to Nambu at the post-ceremony reception, fellow Nobel laureate and professor emeritus of physics Jim Cronin said that Nambu’s prize wasn’t merely well deserved but also well overdue. (He speculated that the gap between Nambu’s Nobel-winning work and the announcement of the award—48 years—might be a Nobel Foundation record.) Nambu, for his part, thanked the University for treating him “like family” when he arrived in Hyde Park in 1954. Raising his champagne glass, he announced another toast: “Here’s to the University of Chicago!”

Benjamin Recchie, AB’03

The musicians of Millar Brass open up the ceremony; Hafström presents Nambu with his diploma and medal.

Photos by Dan Dry.

December 12, 2008