04/02/2001 07:00:00

Caltech Physicist Awarded Sakurai Prize

PASADENA, Ca-Particle physicists immerse themselves in a subatomic world. They deal with the quirkiest bits of matter-quarks, leptons, gauge bosons and the like-particles infinitesimally small, often unstable and short-lived, and sometimes so elusive they can't be seen at all, but are only theorized to exist. For his work in this area, the American Physical Society has awarded the California Institute of Technology's Mark Wise the J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.

Wise is the John A. McCone Professor of High Energy Physics at Caltech. The Sakurai Prize is symbolic of the admiration of a physicist's peers, and further, "demonstrates that the recipient's accomplishments and contributions to physics are judged exceptional by his colleagues." It was endowed in 1984 as both a memorial to, and in recognition of, the accomplishments of the late theoretical physicist J. J. Sakurai.

In describing the fundamental aspects of these particles and how they interact to make the physical world, physicists like Wise look for laws of nature (like the law of gravity) and express them using mathematical equations. Such equations can then serve as a basis for other measurements and calculations. One such law governs the "strong interactions;" that is, the forces between quarks (the fundamental constituents of matter) that bind them into protons and neutrons, which, in turn, make up the atomic nucleus.

The law for the strong interactions of quarks is called quantum chromodynamics. It implies that quarks can only exist when they are bound together with other quarks. Such bound states are particles; physicists call them hadrons. Wise was cited for his work in developing a new method for making predictions for the properties of such bound states that contain a so-called heavy quark (heavy in terms of its atomic weight).

Specifically, Wise was awarded the Sakurai Prize for his "construction of the heavy quark mass expansion and the discovery of the heavy quark symmetry in quantum chromodynamics, which led to a quantitative theory of the decays of c and b flavored hadrons."

In the parlance of physics, "c and b flavored" hadrons refer not to taste, but to different types of quarks. Wise discovered a heavy quark symmetry that explains the properties of the hadrons that contain such c and b quarks.

Wise's work lets physicists understand the behavior of hadrons without actually having to solve the equations of quantum chromodynamics. Furthermore, the methods developed by Wise enabled physicists for the first time to make quantitative predictions for the properties of hadrons containing a heavy quark. These predictions are important for determining from experimental data the values of some of the parameters that occur in still another law that describes the weak interactions of quarks.

Wise's research interests include particle physics, nuclear physics, and cosmology. Outside of physics, another area of interest is finance, specifically risk management. He has held a Sloan Fellowship and is a member of the American Physical Society. The awards ceremony will take place at the April meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. on April 28.