Prediction of Physics Nobel Prize Premature. Maybe Next Year for the Higgs?

My prediction yesterday that today’s Nobel Prize in Physics would be for the discovery of the Higgs Boson was premature. But it may not be too soon to predict that the Higgs will win a Nobel for a few people next year.

This Slate article from last Wednesday included numerous predictions about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, including this more-or-less correct one from Charles Seife: “I think that it’s high time that some of the work in quantum computation and quantum information theory gets a Nobel. Depending on how the committee divvies it up, it could go to any number of people, such as Ray Laflamme, Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard, Chris Monroe, David Wineland, Seth Lloyd, Neil Gershenfeld, Ike Chuang, David Deutsch, and Peter Shor.”

He was right about the area of research, but only managed to name one of the winners, David Wineland, who shared the award with Serge Haroche “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

The Slate article also has this comment from contributor Geoff Brumfiel, who is a physics reporter for Nature:
“The obvious story in physics this year has been the Higgs particle, but it seems unlikely that it will get a prize. For one thing, nominations began before this summer’s announcement. For another, we’re still not entirely sure what we’ve found. More data will be released next month and again in December. Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish.”

Could it be next year? Perhaps. More often it takes many years for an award to be made, and sometimes the most likely recipients die before their work is recognized. Since the Nobel goes only to living people, that means that notables who make the discovery late in life or, like Rosalind Franklin, die young never get the recognition they deserve.

In this case, Higgs and others published their predictive work in 1964, but the experimental confirmation did not come until a few months ago. So a Nobel Prize next year would not be out of the question. In fact, I can recall two fairly recent back-to-back physics prizes that were awarded within a very few years after first publication, including one that came within a year.

In 1986, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of the IBM research laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland won for work done only five years earlier, the design of the scanning tunneling microscope, a device that enabled scientists to image surfaces down to the level of individual atoms.

Interestingly, Binnig and Rohrer split the award with 80 year-old Ernst Ruska who built the first electron microscope 53 years earlier. Ruska died in 1988, so his relatively long life allowed him to win the Nobel Prize.

Meanwhile at the same IBM laboratory in 1986, J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alexander Mueller made a breakthrough discovery of superconductivity in a ceramic material known as a perovskite. Before their discovery, the highest temperature at which superconductivity was known was in the low 20 kelvins range (a kelvin is the same as a Celsius degree, but the scale begins with 0 at absolute zero). Their discovery increased that temperature to the mid-30s and set off a rash of research that led to superconductivity well above the 77 kelvin boiling point of liquid nitrogen. The current record is 133 kelvins.

Bednorz and Mueller won the Nobel Prize in 1987, barely a year after their breakthrough. As an inveterate fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I am used to saying, “Wait ’til next year.” So perhaps 2013 will finally be the year that my beloved Buccos win more games than they lose for the first time since 1992. And perhaps it will be the year that Higgs and others will win the Nobel prize for work published nearly five decades ago.

If you are interested in my perspectives on the recent history of Physics and a look ahead to the discoveries waiting to happen in the next several years, please look for my 2007 book Physics: Decade by Decade in the Twentieth-Century Science collection from Facts on File.

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