A chance for pure science to celebrate
Peter Higgs and Francois Englert have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the theory of what came to be known as the Higgs boson. Blighty's Higgs and Belgium's Englert were among a number of physicists in the 1960s who suggested that a sub-atomic particle was responsible for giving the rest of the particles in the …
"And then I write
By morning, night,
And pretty soon
My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed,
When he finds out I publish first!"
There's a whole long list of folks who did the work and published second or, worse still, never published at all and their names appear not on the long list of Nobel laureates. Getting your name on the licence plate at the front of the juggernaut (it's the Higgs boson, not the Brout Englert Guralnik Hagen Higgs Kibble boson) is frosting on the cake.
I wonder if they'll let Prof Higgs into the Royal Society now?
Actually, having read up a bit and watched an interview with Englert, the story is quite sad.
Higgs got his name used for the particle, but Englert was the first to publish, did so in a more fundamental way and only his theory is used by the CERN for the verification.
So Higgs just got to give his name and get the fame...
If memory serves, I reckon the most famous example here is Sir Isaac Newton (yes, that one), who actually invented Calculus, although he called it "Fluxions".
Rather than publish he used his cunning mathematical toys to come up with loads of other stuff, intending to spill the beans later. Unfortunately, Leibnitz beat him to it......
> I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research
I hope so, too. But given the hopelessness of the BBC's "explanation" of what the HB does (a video insert on their coverage of the award) I think trying to get the media to explain abstract ideas - and physics in particular - is a lost cause.
This is all par for the course. It is unusual for there to not be more than three people involved in any major discovery. The Nobel committee almost always has to choose the most worthy winners from a group, and people with valid claims almost always lose out. The Nobel prizes in the sciences are very prestigious at least partly because the judges have almost always given them for the right discoveries over the last century or so. There's is always plenty of discussion as to whether they have given them to the right people though.
As for the theorists and not the experimentalists getting the prize, there is an unofficial rule that theorists do not get the prize until what they have predicted has been confirmed by experiment. At this time last year we were still waiting for results to be confirmed and published, so this year was realistically the first time Higgs and Englert could be honoured. As Englert is 80 and Higgs is 84 (and the prize is never awarded posthumously) there was a clear need to honour them as soon as possible. The experimentalists at CERN are all much younger, though, so there is plenty of time to honour them later. It might be that in a year or two there might be a better picture as to who exactly should be honoured. The same Nobel Prize could have been split between theorists and experimentalists, but this is a big enough discovery that there is much to be said for devoting two years' prizes to it.
Although there are many cases in science/maths where the person who has their name on it isn't necessarily the most deserving of it (a) this isn't the case this time and (b) there would be a certain confusion caused by awarding the nobel prize "to Alice, Bob and Carol (but not Dave) for the discovery of the Dave particle".
c.f. my frothing at the mouth when anyone suggests the UK should drop GMT. "But the G stands for Greenwich - which is right over there! I can see it out my window! Look! Look at it! There's a hill with the observatory on top! You can go and stand on 0 degrees! Arrrggghhhhh!"
There have been cases where the Nobel committee have waited until after the person whose name was first on the paper (but everyone knows didn't really do the work) has died before awarding the prize. As the person with his name first in such cases has almost always managed it through having more seniority (a doctoral supervisor compared to a doctoral student, or a lab director compared to a researcher in the lab) and is therefore almost always older, this can be surprisingly effective.
There's no real question that Higgs and Englert deserve it here. The committee clearly decided not to try to choose one of the other three though.
Another issue with today’s choice is that if you do want to emphasize a model of scientific research where advances come from a specific “great man” theorist, in this case they’ve left out the greatest one involved. The specific model tested at the LHC was not that of Englert and Higgs, but the one that Weinberg and Salam already got a prize for. The new prize is for the general mechanism, but this is something that was first understood by Philip Anderson a couple years before Englert and Higgs. For some details of the history, see here. The argument is often made that Anderson’s model was not relativistic, but this is a phenomenon for which relativity is not relevant, something which Anderson understood.
All of the above is recommended read.
One should point out that Philip Anderson has won a Nobel Prize already for something else. While it is not unheard of for a second Nobel prize in the sciences to be awarded to the same person, it is very rare, and one thinks that the committee would be particularly unlikely to make such an award in a case where it was already fairly contentious as to who would be missing out.
What has been discovered at CERN? That there is a Higgs Boson? That it might exist? That the Higgs Boson is possibly the mechanism for transferring gravitational force? That it is definitely the mechanism whereby gravity operates? Please can someone enlighten me, thanks!
That the Weinberg-Salam model allows you to make correct predictions regarding basically the last "needed" particle (in particular, that guessing at "Lagrangians".and applying ideas from solid matter physics to the vacuum works). And this for totally mysterious reasons.
Gravitation does not enter the picture, that's still "out there", waiting to be unified-in.
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