Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Here, at last ...

"Here at last ..."

With those words the Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics to Francois Englert (left) and Peter Higgs (right) for their work in discovering the theoretical basis for what we now refer to as the Higgs mechanism.

Speculation about the 2013 prize had reached fever pitch ahead of this year's announcement.  Most commentators in the physics community expected that this would be the year that the scientists who ushered in our understanding of how subatomic particles obtained mass, would be honoured by the Nobel committee. 
The question was, which scientists?

Nobel science prizes can traditionally only be awarded to a maximum of three recipients, all of whom must be living.  The theoretical work on the Higgs mechanism, and the prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson, was undertaken by at least six physicists in 1964: Robert Brout (sadly deceased) and Francois Englert; Peter Higgs; and Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble.

Further complicating matters was the strong belief amongst many that the extraordinary experimental work, undertaken by the CMS and ATLAS teams at CERN, ought to be acknowledged.  

Who can forget that emotional day, 4 July 2012, when Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti broke the news that both CMS and ATLAS had found experimental evidence of the Higgs boson? 

The pundits focused on whether this would be the year that the Nobel committee broke with tradition and awarded the prize to more than three recipients. Would they be bold enough the recognise the efforts of an institution for the first time, by including CERN in the award?  Would the theoretical work of Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble, be acknowledged alongside the work of Higgs and Englert?  

Science writer and ATLAS team member, Jon Butterworth, summed up the feelings of many when he wrote:

"It should be Higgs, Englert and Cern. Nobel prizes are for discovery, Higgs and Englert discovered the theory, Cern (many people) discovered the reality."

This morning's announcement, delayed by an hour for unspecified reasons, reveled that tradition is intact. Englert and Higgs share the prize for "the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider."

The news triggered celebrations at CERN and in physics labs the world over, but also some quieter reflection from those close to the news.

As Matt Strassler has noted, in his excellent analysis of the history of the discovery, it is important to acknowledge the longer, more complex story involved in the discovery of this vital constituent of the Standard Model of particle physics. Over-simplifications of what is involved in doing science can lead to dangerous misconceptions.  He writes:

"History in general, and history of science in particular, is always vastly more complex than the simple stories we tell ourselves and our descendants."

Jon Butterworth made a further plea for the collaborative nature of science to be properly recognised, in his response to the news:

"While lone geniuses and breakthroughs do occur, incremental progress and collaboration are more important in increasing our understanding of nature. Even the theory breakthrough behind this prize required a body of incrementally acquired knowledge to which many contributed.
The discovery of a Higgs boson, showing that the theoretical ideas are manifested in the real world, was thanks to the work of many thousands. There are 3,000 or so people on Atlas, a similar number on CMS, and hundreds who worked on the LHC. While the citation gives handsome credit for all this, part of me still wishes the prizes could have acknowledged it too."

Whilst there is no question that Higgs and Englert richly deserve this accolade, spare a thought for Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble, as well as the thousands of experimentalists at CERN.

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