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Today’s New York Times article didn’t explain it very well, but the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded this morning is for the discovery of “asymptotic freedom,” a bizarre property of quarks and gluons. Unlike every other force discovered to date, quarks and gluons experience something quite different–a force that is negligible at small distances and that grows larger with distance. Amazingly, as two quarks are separated in space, their force of attraction increases. That’s completely unlike anything seen in the gravitational or electromagnetic realm.

Why does this matter? Of course, it matters if you’re looking to understand the very fundamental construction of the universe. But it also matters if you’re trying to understand the collisions of very large atomic nuclei such as uranium, where what’s thought to happen is the construction of a quark-gluon plasma.

It’s difficult, at the moment, to see a practical application for the work on asymptotic freedom. But it would hardly be the first time a Nobel on an obscure process has led to new developments. The 1971 Prize to Dennis Gabor for holograms is a case in point. A couple of prizes in quantum electronics (1956, 1964) have proved their worth in the computer revolution. Even prizes like that of 1936, for the discovery of the positron, while once theoretical and abstract, have proven themselves prescient with the development of the positron-emission tomograph and perhaps even the positron-electron bomb. This year’s prize has the same feel to it – that 30 years from now engineers will be deciding what to do with it.

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