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Recent Nobel Prize in Physics has Virginia Tech connections


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 4, 2008 – Physics professors in Virginia Tech's College of Science played a supporting role in the research that led to the recently announced 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics.

The prize was awarded to theoretical physicists Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa for their insights into the profound role that symmetries and symmetry violations play in nature.

Virginia Tech Physics Professor Leo Piilonen and his colleagues contributed to the experimental confirmation of Kabayashi’s and Maskawa’s predictions through their research at Japan’s High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK). The Nobel Prize winners’ research, dating back to 1972, was validated conclusively in 2001 by measurements performed by the Belle experiment, a detector at the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization.

“As a department, we have had a long-lasting and essential association with the three winners,” said Beate Schmittmann, chair of the physics department.

Piilonen and Emeritus Professors Al Abashian and Kazuo Gotow were among the founding members of the experiment in the early 1990s and played key roles in its original conception, construction, operation and data analysis that led to the prize-winning validation.

“The Nobel Prize Committee’s award citation references the validation of the winner’s predictions by the Belle experiment,” Piilonen said. “Ironically, as more data are collected by the Belle detector, the hope is that small but significant deviations from Kobayashi and Maskawa’s prediction will appear, thus leading to even better insight into broken symmetry in nature. We in the Belle experiment are very happy to see their seminal work recognized at long last by the Nobel Committee.”

The Belle collaboration, formed in 1993, now includes about 400 scientists from 11 countries and continues its research in subatomic physics to discover the behavior of matter at its most elementary level.

In another Nobel Prize connection, Lay Nam Chang, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Science, was a collaborator with Yoichiro Nambu from 1969 to 1971. Those years formed part of a period when Nambu’s ideas sparked a series of breakthroughs in the understanding of strong interactions such as the forces controlling the binding of neutrons and protons in the atomic nucleus.