TSUNG DAO LEE (b.1926) CHEN NING YANG (b.1922)

1956 – USA

‘Parity is not conserved in weak interactions between elementary particles’

Elementary particles interact by four types of forces: gravity (the attraction between all matter), electromagnetism (the force between charged particles), the strong force (such as in the atomic nucleus) and the weak force (another type of nuclear force).

The existence of antimatter leads to the idea of symmetry – every particle has a mirror-like twin.

The law of conservation of parity says that the laws of physics are identical in right- or left-handed systems. However, certain interactions of elementary particles always produce a particle always spinning in the same direction. When an atom emits a neutrino it always spins in the same direction – left-handedly. Many elementary particles display a preference for left over right.

In 1956 Lee and Yang suggested that the evidence for left-right symmetry is weak in interactions involving the weak force.

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RICHARD FEYNMAN (1918- 88)

1963 – USA

‘Quantum electrodynamics’

Quantum electrodynamics was the successor to quantum mechanics. One of the problems with the quantum theory of electromagnetic fields was that for the theory to work electrons needed to have an infinite energy of interaction and an infinite number of degrees of freedom. Feynman’s way of calculating quantum electrodynamics set quantum theory on a firm footing.

After being invited to join the commission investigating the January 28, 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster by NASA, Feynman demonstrated his determination to remain an independent observer by publishing his own appendix to the report. Feynman added to the commission’s criticism of its system of management by finding that NASA’s own method of using statistics that showed the shuttle was safe was for two reasons. “ …an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers…. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled ”.

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Link to richard feynman Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures on video

ROBERT MATTHEWS (b.1959)

1995 – England

‘A slice of toast sliding off a plate or table has a natural tendency to land butter side down’

This provides prima facie evidence for Murphy’s law. Matthews writes in a detailed research paper ‘Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law and the Fundamental Constants‘ in the European Journal of Physics (July 1995) ‘Toast does indeed have a natural tendency to land butter side down, essentially because the gravitational torque induced as the toast topples over the edge of the plate/table is insufficient to bring the toast butter-side up again by the time that it hits the floor’. The argument was explained by five pages of mathematical calculations. Matthew’s extraordinary insights into the behaviour of buttered toast won him the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for physics.

In 2001 Matthews tried to prove his theory experimentally. About 1000 schoolchildren from schools across the UK took part in his experiments and performed 9821 drops of toast, of which 6101 were butter-side-down landings – ‘And thus Robert Matthews demonstrated both theoretically and experimentally that nature abhors a newly vacuumed floor’.

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