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.