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Stony Brook professor wins Breakthrough Prize for exploring theory of 'supergravity'

Physicist Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University,

Physicist Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University, seen Monday, is one of this year's recipients of the coveted Breakthrough Prize. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Physicist Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University and two collaborators will share the most lucrative award in science — a $3 million Breakthrough Prize — for developing the highly influential theory of “supergravity.”

The recognition arrives 43 years after van Nieuwenhuizen and his colleagues formulated the theory, which has had a powerful impact on physics, including how theories advanced by Albert Einstein are understood. Van Nieuwenhuizen will share the prize with theoretical physicists Daniel Z. Freedman of MIT and Stanford University, and Sergio Ferrara of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN.

“I can truthfully say I didn’t expect it at all,” said van Nieuwenhuizen, who holds the title of distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook.

“It has been more than 40 years since I wrote the paper,” van Nieuwenhuizen said of his scientific report that laid the foundation for a new way of understanding the universe.

When he was notified by the chairman of the awards committee, informing him about the prize, van Nieuwenhuizen initially assumed the call was about a puzzling physics issue. “I thought he was calling to ask me a very difficult question about supergravity that I couldn’t answer,” he said.

Prize administrators describe the award as a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the fifth special one ever awarded. Previous winners of the special prize include the late Stephen Hawking; seven CERN scientists whose research led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, sometimes popularly called the God particle, and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars, spinning celestial objects at the fringes of the universe.

Van Nieuwenhuizen joins other Stony Brook physicists who have won a Breakthrough Prize.

In 2015, a team of Stony Brook physicists led by Chang Kee Jung won in the Fundamental Physics category, although the award was not designated a special prize. Sir Simon Donaldson, a professor at Stony Brook’s Center for Geometry and Physics, was honored in 2014 with a prize in Mathematics.

Last year, Dr. Adrian Krainer of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory became the first Long Island recipient of a Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences category. Krainer shared the $3 million award with C. Frank Bennett of Ionis Pharmaceuticals in California, who collaborated with Krainer on the development of a lifesaving treatment called Spinraza, a form of gene therapy. It addresses spinal muscular atrophy, a rare neurodegenerative disease in children.

Breakthrough Prizes recognize scientists who have made profound contributions to human knowledge, administrators of the awards said.

The prizes were founded in 2012 and are sponsored by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, among other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The prizes have been dubbed the Oscars of Science. Laureates will be honored during a televised ceremony in California in November.

Van Nieuwenhuizen and colleagues have helped shape the understanding of modern physics. The concept of supergravity has been part of the discipline’s textbooks for decades.

 As a theory, supergravity attempts to harness all the forces of nature — a Grand Unification Theory — to help explain how the universe works. The forces of nature include gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. The strong force involves how subatomic particles are bound. The weak force is exemplified by radioactive decay.

Van Nieuwenhuizen was aided in his work 43 years ago by a computer at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Supergravity, for instance, underlies string theory, the notion that vibrating strings of energy form the four fundamental forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces.

It is believed that “super strings” move through an 11-dimensional "spacetime" to form the very fabric of nature itself.

“The two pillars of modern physics are called quantum mechanics and general relativity,” van Nieuwenhuizen said. “Einstein wrote a theory of gravity based on general relativity. But that theory cannot be made compatible with quantum mechanics.

“Supergravity, on the other hand, is compatible at least as far as been checked,” van Nieuwenhuizen said, because it unites quantum mechanics — the mathematical description of motion and the interaction of subatomic particles — with general relativity, Einstein’s theory. That theory in a nutshell explains the force of gravity arising from the curvature of space and time.

Van Nieuwenhuizen said he had just launched his career when he began studying the basic principles of supergravity. “I was just in my first year as an assistant professor,” he said. “The rest of my life has been devoted to the theory,” which he has studied exclusively at Stony Brook.

“I was at the right place at the right moment in the right subject,” he said, referring to the academic freedom that allowed him to refine supergravity as a theoretical concept and to help develop the mathematics needed to explain it.

“After the first paper, hundreds if not thousands of physicists all over the world studied the theory, which helped solve long-standing questions in physics. The most important discovery has not yet happened,” van Nieuwenhuizen said.

He describes the elusive discovery as the existence of a supersymmetric particle, predicted by the theory.

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