“Law” of physics broken

February 16, 2010 • 6:33 am

. . . and by humans, not God.  Today’s New York Times reports that a physics experiment conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and involving the collision of nuclei to create states mimicking those present in the early universe, has succeeded in creating local conditions that violate the laws of physics.  The law, in this case, was parity: the principle that other physical laws, and the behavior of particles, are independent of a distinction between left and right.  Apparently a violation of parity was seen in the quarks produced by those nuclear collisions, quarks that behaved asymmetrically.  (Those collisions also created a temperature of 4 trillion degrees Centigrade!).

I’m not a physicist and can’t vouch for the importance of this result, but I suspect that Sean Carroll will soon be explaining it over at Cosmic Variance.


Update:  Sean Carroll did his homework and put up a post on this.  In the end, the result doesn’t seem nearly as earth-shaking as the Times made out, but is that a surprise?

13 thoughts on ““Law” of physics broken

  1. C. N. Yang and T. D. Lee won the Nobel Prize in 1957 for their suggestion that parity conservation had never been decisively proven in any experiment and their proposal of experiments that could prove whether it was in fact violated. After this suggestion, C. S. Wu quickly showed experimentally that parity was not conserved in the weak nuclear interaction. So parity conservation has not been thought to be a fundamental law for more than half a century. But these recent experiments seem to show some interesting new areas where parity violation is important.

    1. The New York Times article is rather awful, in fact. They go rather sensationalist, focusing on the parity symmetry failing only explaining that it’s known to fail at the end of the first page.

      What I found most irritating was on page two, when they start referring to it as “mirror symmetry” which is a VERY different topic, and has been vaguely described in pop-physics books enough that the sorts of people who would read this article are likely to get the wrong idea.

      The most interesting part of the article was the rather brief mention of the fact that the plasma behaved like a liquid, rather than a gas, which IS rather surprising and exciting.

    1. It is true that the RHIC is only run during the winter because of the cost of electric power on Long Island in the summer.

  2. Fascinating stuff. Maybe consider looking up-before going: arghhh, the Brookhaven homepage, they have a rather decent press release-By the way, some physics blogs can give you a potent adrenaline boost-.On another note, check out Edward Blair Bolles, Babels dawn blog, on F&PP book. Fascinating stuff.

    1. Mmm… good question. However, you never know with science. Experiments in genetics were carried only for curiosity, and we ended up with genetic engineering.

  3. Hmmm, I thought JoAnne (and is it Mark?) was the high-energy physicist.

    Is this where I go off about inherent sexism?

  4. I’ll be waiting for the “oh, our data didn’t show that after all”. However, if the parity violation is confirmed then there is the task of working out the conditions for such a violation and why parity is observed (or not obviously violated) in all the other experiments in the past.

    1. Oops … Should have read H. Jacobi’s post first. At any rate, we don’t need to throw out all physics books tomorrow and use the bible to teach physics instead.

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