The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing physicists Sergio Ferrara (CERN), Daniel Z. Freedman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University), and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen (Stony Brook University) for the discovery of supergravity.
The three physicists will share the $3 million prize for their highly influential 1976 theory that integrated gravity into a particular kind of quantum field theory (a theory that describes the fundamental particles and forces of nature in terms of fields embodying the laws of quantum mechanics). Discussions between Ferrara and Freedman at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1975 continued in collaboration with van Nieuwenhuizen and, through a laborious series of calculations on a state-of-the-art computer, led to the development of a supersymmetric theory that included "gravitinos" — a super-fermion partner to the graviton, the gravity-carrying boson. According to the foundation, supergravity was not an alternative to Einstein's theory of general relativity but a supersymmetric version of it; the algebra used in the theory includes variables representing part of the geometry of spacetime — a mathematical model that fuses the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional continuum.
In the four decades since the development of the theory, supergravity has come to represent a completion of the current understanding of particle physics and has provided a foundation for the ongoing work to build a full theory of quantum gravity that describes space and time at a fundamental level. In 1981, Edward Witten showed that the theory could be used to give a simple proof of what had been an extremely complicated theorem in general relativity. "The discovery of supergravity was the beginning of including quantum variables in describing the dynamics of spacetime," said Witten, who chairs the prize's selection committee. "It is quite striking that Einstein's equations admit the generalization that we know as supergravity."
"When we think of the great works of the human imagination, we often mean art, music, and literature," said Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize and a 2013 signatory of the Giving Pledge. "But some of the most profound and beautiful creations are those of scientists. Supergravity has inspired physicists for decades and may contain deep truths about the nature of reality."
(Photo credit: CERN)