This is a story of a remarkable cross-fertilization of fields. Ideas that originated in speculations about phase transitions in the early universe have led to some very exciting and innovative laboratory experiments on a wide variety of small-scale systems. And although significant puzzles remain, a consistent picture of the dynamics of phase transitions seems to be emerging. The ideas from cosmology stimulated an interest in rapid phase transitions, in contrast to previous work that emphasized ideal near-equilibrium behavior.

Our story starts with the search for grand unification. One of the great triumphs of particle physics was the successful unification 40 years ago of weak and electromagnetic interactions, for which Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg received the 1979 Nobel Prize. Their electroweak theory involves what’s known as a spontaneously broken gauge symmetry. At high energy, an underlying symmetry relates the photon, the carrier of the electromagnetic interaction, to the...

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