By Clara Moskowitz
Symmetry is easily recognizable in art, architecture, even anatomy. But the concept of symmetry in physics is hard to wrap one’s head around. Yet it is here that symmetry has played one of its most important roles, unlocking the secrets of the forces in nature and of the fundamental particles that inhabit our universe. “The biggest conceptual change over the last 100 years in the way physicists think about the world is symmetry,” says theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University.
Mathematical symmetry, which Krauss describes as a kind of rule book of nature, has guided scientists to discover the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons in atoms, the gluons that bind them, and eventually the current crowning achievement of particle physics: the Higgs boson that explains how particles get their mass. It has allowed researchers to unify some of the forces in nature—for instance uniting electricity and magnetism into electromagnetism and later adding the weak force to make the electroweak interaction.
In his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (March 2017, Simon & Schuster), Krauss details how symmetries have led the way to the major breakthroughs of modern particle physics. Scientific American spoke to Krauss about the meaning of symmetry in science, how symmetry got “broken” in important ways during the history of the universe and what role it could play in both future research and the fate of our entire cosmos.
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