Oct 08 2013

Let the physics Nobel arguments begin!

As expected, this year’s Nobel prize in physics, announced today, was awarded for the discovery of the Higgs boson. The prize was awarded to two people, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs. As I said in one of my series of posts on the Higgs boson, the award of the prize was bound to raise hackles because five theorists had some claim to the discovery (there were six but Robert Brout died in 2011), as well the experimental groups that found the particle last year, not to mention CERN, the laboratory where the experiment was done.

But the rules for the physics prize, both written and traditional, limit the award to at most three individuals who had to be alive. This made the committee’s task difficult and there was bound to be some unhappiness. The fact that the announcement was delayed suggests that the discussions went down to the wire.

All six theorists contributed to the Higgs theory independently in three groups and published within a short period of three months of each other in 1964. Belgian Englert and American expatriate Brout jointly published first on the mechanism, followed by Higgs whose paper first suggested the existence of a particle associated with the mechanism. Americans Gerald Guralnik and Charles Hagen and the UK’s Tom Kibble published the next paper that rounded out the trio of discoveries. This order was likely the criterion used by the committee to decide where to make the cut. If Brout were still living, he would undoubtedly have been one of the winners too.

It must be a crushing disappointment for Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble. Kibble and the experimental groups issued gracious statements congratulating Englert and Higgs. Hagen, on the other hand, has said that he is disappointed by the decision and that not getting the prize detracts from the importance of his team’s work which he said was more comprehensive than that of the others. There is no word yet from Guralnik. [UPDATE: Guralnik was both honest and gracious, saying that it 'stings a little' not to get the prize but acknowledging that the committee had a tough job.]

There will be a lot of arguing and complaining in the days to come especially by the supporters of those who did not get the prize, and attempts to change the physics prize rules to be more expansive. I expect the latter efforts to fail.


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  1. 1
    Rob Grigjanis

    The selection criteria suck, but I’d say this was the expected outcome. The fact that the particle ended up being named after Higgs (not his fault!) probably played more of a role than it should have. But having picked Higgs, which one or two of GHK could have been chosen? There have been greater injustices in the awards.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    I wasn’t aware that the recipient still had to be alive. In the future history I’ve written for a science fiction project, I had the Physics prize for 2101 going to two people who proves some rather outlandish proposals made in 2048. They refused to accept it unless the woman who proposed the theories, and was utterly disgraced because they were so outlandish — was also named as a co-winner. The Nobel Committee caved.

    I suppose I could have the woman still alive when the announcement was made.

  3. 3

    I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the physics or the politics behind this, so I won’t. I will say I was unaware that guidelines prohibit posthumous awards. Is there an easily stated rationale for that?

  4. 4

    The problem here was that, having decided on Higgs and Englert as recipients, they were left with choosing amongst Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble to fill out the third slot. I suspect that’s why there was a 1 hour delay as the committee couldn’t agree as to who the third recipient should be. So, since they couldn’t by the terms of Nobel’s will include all three in the award, they punted and passed them by.

    I have to say that I’m a little disappointed myself because Hagen and Guralnik were my joint PhD thesis advisers.

    By the way, this is hardly the first time that an experimentalist who deserved to share a Nobel Prize was passed over. Chien-Shiung Wu, (known as Madame Wu) was passed over when Lee and Yang were awarded the prize for their prediction of parity violation in weak interactions; she performed the experiment that verified their prediction.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    Is there an easily stated rationale for that?

    Probably because clearing the backlog of ancients would take too long; they’d be up to Isaac Newton fairly soon. :)

  6. 6

    Yeah, I realized that after I posted :) – but – the same type of shared history occurs in statistics (my discipline). It just seems odd that some type of window couldn’t be developed.

  7. 7

    Maybe the Templeton Foundation should consider awarding a Templeton Prize to Carl Hagen, who is a born again Christian, or at least was when I knew him.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    I don’t know if Alfred Nobel gave any reason but Marcus Ranum’s possible reason makes sense.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    Yep, I would suggest that you change the plot or explicitly say that the rules had changed by 2101. Otherwise you are going to get grief from critics!

    In 2011, one of the prize winners died on a Friday and the Nobel committee, not aware of his death, announced him as a winner on the following Monday. There was initially some question about whether he was still eligible but they decided to award it to him anyway.

  10. 10
    Lassi Hippeläinen

    IIRC, Nobel intended his prize to be awarded to talented young scientists who need the money to continue their work. The Committee has long ago abandoned the “young” part.

    Nobel’s testament was pretty obscure about the details. Most of the rules had to be made afterwards. That’s why it took several years after his death before the first prizes were awarded.

  11. 11

    The problem that soon arose and apparently was not noticed by Nobel was that advances in the sciences might not be recognized for a long time. The current physics award is a prime example. When Higgs and the others published their papers in 1964, they had little impact because quantum field theory was in somewhat of a hiatus because it appeared at the time that it was inapplicable to strong interaction physics. It took a long time for the importance of the work to be recognized and an even longer time for a particle accelerator to be built that provided sufficient energy in the center of mass to produce the Higgs boson, which at 125 GEV is by far the most massive elementary particle around. Hence the 50 year interval.

  12. 12
    Rob Grigjanis

    The top quark is more massive (~170 GeV), and the W and Z are in the ballpark (80-90 GeV).

  13. 13

    Re Rob Grigjanis

    As I understand it, what was observed was a free Higgs boson that showed up as a resonance. A free quark will never be observed because the forces holding baryons together, are related to the separation between the constituent quarks rather then inverse separation like all other forces in the universe (e.g. they resemble a harmonic oscillator).

  14. 14

    The QCD interaction is rather weird by ordinary standards, because of gluon self-interactions and it being much stronger than most other interactions.

    For distances r less than the color-confinement distance rc, the force is
    F ~ F0/(r^2 * log(rc/r))

    The QCD fine-structure constant ~ F0/log(rc/r)

    For r greater than rc,
    F ~ F1 (constant: stringlike)

  15. 15

    My previous post was in response to colnago80 3.2 last response, and this post is also.

    The Higgs particle is like many other particles, too short-lived to make an observable track or gap in a detector. It’s observed as a resonance, a spike at some energy of the production of its decay products. It’s called a resonance because of wave-particle duality and its behaving like a macroscopic resonance.

    The top quark does not last long enough to hadronize, since it decays into a real W and a bottomlike quark. The other quarks all hadronize, and their decays involve a virtual W.

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