Three Americans who helped describe the force that binds together the atomic nucleus were named winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. They are Dr. David J. Gross of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Dr. Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Dr. H. David Politzer of the California Institute of Technology.
In a pair of papers published in 1973, one by Gross and Wilczek, the other by Politzer, they explained why quarks, the theoretical constituents of the neutrons and protons that make up the nucleus, could never be seen apart from one another. Their work paved the way for a theory known by the fanciful-sounding name quantum chromodynamics, part of a suite of theories known as the Standard Model that explains all the forces of nature except gravity. It also raised hopes that physicists might yet find a single unified theory of nature. They will each get a third of the $1.3 million prize.
The award had long been anticipated by the scientific community. Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss, an astrophysicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said it was long overdue, adding, "How often do you get to explain one of the four fundamental forces of nature?"
In a press conference at MIT, Wilczek said the award was welcome recognition for the endeavor of trying to understand nature. "It is one of the real gems of our culture," he said, "that we can understand nature in this way and that you find beautiful things."
The award harks back to what now seems like a golden age of particle physics that lasted from the end of World War II to the 1980s. In a spurt of feverish activity at particle accelerators and at the blackboards of theorists, physics arrived at an understanding of the three fundamental forces in nature besides gravity: electromagnetism, which is responsible for light and chemistry; the so-called weak force, responsible for some kinds of radioactive decay; and the strong force, studied by Gross, Wilczek and Politzer, which holds together atomic nuclei.