The Nobel Committee’s Dilemma: Who wins for the Higgs?

Yesterday, I posted a review of Ian Sample’s 2010 book, Massive, which puts today’s announcement at the Large Hadron Collider in perspective. My review includes this paragraph:

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.

11 thoughts on “The Nobel Committee’s Dilemma: Who wins for the Higgs?”

  1. It’s not true that Higgs published first. Brout and Englert published first; Higgs was next. Higgs was the first to specifically mention a particle associated with the Higgs field. As Brout is dead, my money is on Englert and Higgs.

  2. All works were independant and apreared in PRL Volume 13 in 1964

    *BE was first with field but had no boson, error with poles (top of 322)
    *PH was second – had boson and stated Goldstone theorem “could” fail. With Nambu’s prombting added sentance about “essential feature” is boson (p. 509)
    *GHK was third and generally considered most complete – had field and boson (p. 586 did not focus on it) and shows explicitly how Goldstone theorem fails

    Nobel folks have hard work ahead of them. Easiest task would be to make so all five can get it.

    • @Fred Also
      Expanding the award to the five theorists wouldn’t solve the problem, since it doesn’t include the ones who did the experimental work that supports the theory.

      Do you like my idea of two consecutive awards?

  3. I am fine with two consecutive awards – provided none of the five remaining theorists are omitted from those awards.

  4. [Editor’s Note: Approved because this is not spam, but it is completely off topic.]

    Impartial Judgement brings joy for ALL. Equality and Unity make magic at the same time miracles possible.

  5. Organizations have won Nobel Peace Prizes, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Doctors Without Frontiers.
    Why can’t CERN as an organization win?

  6. Charles, that was implicit in my post. Current rules for the science and literature prizes is that they go to living people (of course in the USA, “Corporations are people, too, my friend.”) Too bad if you come up with a brilliant idea that needs decades to come to fruition. You die, you lose out.

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