Most physicists expect that when the LHC reaches full power in the next year or two, it is likely to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson and the Higgs field. If it does–as Sample seems to expect–the likely outcome is a Nobel Prize for Higgs and the researchers who find his eponymous particle.
The problem the Nobel committee now faces is who, besides Higgs, deserves to get the award. As Sample notes, there are likely to be many contenders and arguments. For instance, a quick look at the Higgs Boson Wikipedia article shows a pair of pictures with this caption: “The six authors of the 1964 PRL [Physical Review Letters] papers, who received the 2010 J. J. Sakurai Prize for their work. From left to right: Kibble, Guralnik, Hagen, Englert, Brout. Right: Higgs.” Besides Higgs’ paper, there were others by Englert and Brout, and the GHK group (Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble).
Higgs published first, so his name became attached to the boson. It will be hard for the Nobel committee to pass him by, even if others contributed more to the research in later years. (I heard Tom Kibble interviewed on NPR, and he had no problem with the name.) [CORRECTION IN COMMENTS: Higgs published after Englert and Brout, but he was the first to mention the boson associated with the field. Thanks to Josh for catching this error.]
The problem the Nobel Committee faces is this: Physics prizes are presented to living scientists and may be shared by no more than three individuals. Do they pick Higgs, Englert, and Guralnik because their names are first on the papers? And what about the teams that did the remarkable experimental work at the LHC? When the discovery paper appears, it is likely, as most high-energy physics research papers do, to have many tens of authors, perhaps even a couple of hundred.
The Nobel Peace Prize has often been given to organizations rather than individuals (notably the 2007 award to the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change, shared with Al Gore). Should the award go to the theorists and the two large teams (ATLAS and CMS) at LHC whose work led to today’s discovery? Even if you think the answer ought to be yes, the rules preclude that result.
My prediction is this: Next year’s prize goes to Higgs, Englert, and Guralnik (unless one of them dies–another unfortunate aspect of the rules, in my opinion). Then the 2014 prize goes to a leader of ATLAS, a leader of CMS, and perhaps a third leader from the LHC.
Another possibility is that the Nobel Committee changes the rules, recognizing that choosing one or a few individuals from large collaborations is not a good reflection of the way much scientific research is carried out today.
I hope many of my readers will chime in on this in the comments field (moderated by necessity but with a light hand and no editing without approval). Let the speculation begin!
When the Nobel Committee makes its choice in several months, it will be too late to do anything but argue about what should have been.