The 2012 Nobel Prize in physics

Pretty much everyone — including, probably, you — thought that the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics would go to the people who discovered evidence of a particle that meets the description of the theoretical Higgs Boson.

But, it didn't.

Instead, the winners are Serge Haroche and David Wineland, two physicists whose work is all about the way that photons — the tiniest pieces of light, which simultaneously behave as both shifting waves and packaged particles — interact with everything else in the Universe.

I really dig this video put together by Brady Haran of Sixty Symbols, because it captures both the surprise associated with today's announcement (turns out, a lot of physicists thought the Higgs Boson would win, too) and does a good job of explaining what Haroche and Wineland do, and why it's important.

Quote of the day: "Have you tried to capture a single atom?"


  1. The science prizes, unlike peace and economics, almost never go to new and trendy work; really, they seldom go to those who did their groundbreaking work less than twenty years before.  Partly that’s so work can be reproduced by others, cited endlessly, and otherwise shown to be of real and lasting significance.  Also, there’s often a backlog of people deserving the award for work done in decades past, and there’s a sense of obligation to recognize them before they die, since the rules don’t allow posthumous awards.

    1. Just a reminder, the “Nobel Prize” in economics is NOT associated with the Nobel Foundation and is not an “official” Nobel prize.  Officially, it is the “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences” and is awarded by a different foundation.  Alfred Nobel specifically wanted to award prizes to people who make human life better and he apparently didn’t think economists made the cut.

        1. Yes, but mathematicians didn’t get their “revenge” by making up their own prize, naming it after Nobel, and then doing everything in their power to conflate their phony award with the decidedly more prestigious Nobel Prize. (The reason was that the prizes are supposed to be awarded for applied science and mathematics doesn’t really make the cut.)

      1.  Just a reminder… the “Nobel Prize” in economics IS associated with Nobel foundation.  They pay the money, they announce the winner and the same body that selects the Chemistry and Physics winners also selects the Economics winners.

        The name of the prize is different because the bank that donated the money to fund the added prize made that part of the deal.

        1. Hmm, apparently it is associated with the foundation, though I think it’s kind of bullshit since Nobel didn’t specify “economics” in his will.  If it’s totally OK to co-opt Nobel’s legacy can we get Nobel prizes in basket weaving or spirit healing?

          1. It’s OK if you can get the Nobel Foundation to say it’s OK (huge donation required).  However, their current position is that no new prizes will be created.

            In his lifetime he was called “the merchant of death”.  The basket weaving prize may do well to find another legacy to co-opt.

  2. It’s way early to go to the Higgs Boson. They usually wait a few years in physics to make sure something’s really significant and there are no ‘oops’ (or you get the fiascos of the Nobel Peace Prize). And even if you figure this is nailed, the Nobel committee are bureaucrats – I think nominations closed in February. July would be far too late to violate protocol even for a complete, working theory of quantum gravity.

  3. The shortest time lag between “discovery” and Nobel Prize was for the discovery of the W and Z bosons (also at CERN): discovery announced in early 1983, Nobel Prize in 1984. So, no, it wasn’t reasonable to expect this year’s prize to go to something only discovered a couple of months ago…

Comments are closed.