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CERN theorist shares Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Z. Freedman and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen are recognised for their 1976 discovery of an influential theory called supergravity

Celebrating Supergravity at 40
Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Sergio Ferrara and Daniel Z. Freedman (left to right), photographed at CERN in 2016 on the occasion of supergravity’s 40th anniversary (Image: CERN)

CERN theorist Sergio Ferrara has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, alongside Daniel Z. Freedman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen of Stony Brook University. The trio is recognised for their 1976 invention of the theory of supergravity, which combines Einstein’s theory of general relativity with a theory called supersymmetry.

“This award comes as a complete surprise,” says Ferrara. “Supergravity is an amazing thing because it extends general relativity to a higher symmetry – the dream of Einstein – but none of us expected this.”

Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen invented supergravity soon after the discovery of supersymmetry, an extension of the Standard Model of particle physics. Developed in the 1960s and early 70s, the Standard Model describes all known particles and has since been confirmed by experiments. However, it was clear from the beginning that the model is incomplete. Among other features, it cannot explain dark matter and it doesn’t include gravity, which is described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Supersymmetry offered a way to fill some of the gaps in the model by giving each fermion and boson in the Standard Model a “superpartner”: fermions would be accompanied by superpartner bosons, while bosons would have superpartner fermions. But supersymmetry doesn’t include gravity, and this is exactly what Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen set out to fix.

Ferrara, who was a CERN fellow from 1973 to 1975 and has been a CERN staff member since the 1980s, started discussing the problem with Freedman at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1975 and then teamed up with van Nieuwenhuizen at Stony Brook University. The three theorists conducted a series of calculations on a state-of-the-art computer that resulted in a supersymmetric theory that included the “gravitino”, a superpartner fermion to a hypothetical boson that mediates gravity called the graviton. This theory of supergravity was described in a paper that the trio published in 1976, and has since had a powerful impact on theoretical physics, including providing a basis for the ongoing effort to develop a full theory of quantum gravity.
The $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics can be awarded at any time and, unlike the annual Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, is not limited to recent discoveries. Previous recipients include Stephen Hawking, seven CERN scientists who led the effort to discover the Higgs boson at CERN, the LIGO and Virgo collaborations for the detection of gravitational waves, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell for the discovery of pulsars.

Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen will receive their prize at a ceremony at NASA’s Hangar 1 on 3 November, where the winners of the annual Fundamental Physics prize and of the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and Mathematics will also be honoured.

See also the CERN Courier article.