Nobel Prizes 2013: An award for the Higgs Boson theorists, but not for the people who found it

The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics was announced this morning and it is probably the least surprising Nobel of the year. People have been speculating for months that the award was going to be centered around the discovery of the Higgs Boson — the subatomic particle that helps explain why everything else in the Universe has mass. The Higgs Boson, itself, has been the physics pop culture celebrity for the last few years. It's even got its own blues.

So the big question going into today's announcement wasn't what discovery would the award be about. The question was who was going to end up being the named human recipients of said award. This was always going to be a tough call. The whole reason you've heard about the Higgs is because of a long-running effort to experimentally prove whether or not it existed. The very nature of experimental particle physics makes it a collaborative enterprise — proving a theory requires huge, expensive machines, international institutions, and lots of physicists. The Nobel Prize, meanwhile, can only be given to three recipients at a time. (Although an institute, like, say, CERN, could have been one of those, at least hypothetically.) The Nobel Committee gut this Gordian Knot by skipping over the experimental physicists altogether and giving the 2013 award to two theorists, alone — Peter Higgs and Francois Englert.

Higgs and Englert — the most prominent of the five living theoretical physicists who first proposed the existence of a Higgs Boson in the 1960s — definitely earned their inclusion. But it's likely that this outcome is going to be controversial, if for no other reason than the fact that it comes off as favoring one branch of particle physics over another, when, in the real world, theory and experiment have to work together to get anything done. Earlier this morning, Rodolphe D'Inca, an experimental physicist who studies fusion at the Max Planck Institute, posted about this on Google+:

...the prize is distorting the way physics is done. It is prestigious and, in one sense, it contributes a lot to the image of physics among the public, especially among kids and students, the future scientists. And it conveys a biased message, which is the following: Be a theoretician, develop a mathematical picture of our universe and let less capable physicists check the validity of your sacred work.

For its part, CERN is handling this in a classy manner — a congratulatory tweet even included a happy emoticon — but this is one of those Nobel Prize awards that you can probably expect people to grumble about slightly, under their breath, for years to come. Ultimately, it's a problem that was likely to happen no matter who got the award. The underlying issue with the Nobel Prize is that, for practical purposes, it can really only go to a limited number of people at once. But science doesn't really operate on The Great Man Theory of History like that. As the discovery of the Higgs Boson shows, even if you have a whole subatomic particle named after you, there can still be a handful of other theorists who all had roughly the same idea around the same time, AND literally thousands of experimental physicists whose work was necessary to prove that you were right. Trying to fit the reality of how science works into an award for three people (maximum) is part of what makes the Nobel Prizes such a complicated thing to hand out.

• Read more about what the Higgs Boson is and why it matters in this BoingBoing story from 2011.

• The Nobel Prize Committee has a pdf about the science of the Higgs Boson, written for a lay audience.

• Last Sunday, Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian about the headaches involved in splitting a single Nobel prize among lots of potential recipients.

• Enjoy our BoingBoing backlog of extensive Higgs Boson coverage — including some great Higgs Boson jokes that are now, again, socially relevant.

PREVIOUSLY: The 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine honors a series of discoveries about the inner workings of the cell.

Notable Replies

  1. Robert Brout was also a major player in developing the theory of "how particles acquire mass", but he died in 2011. That's worth its own story.

    At a talk @ Stockholm University earlier this afternoon, the selection committee chair, Lars Brink, was asked about the issue of credit to CERN for their role in the experimental verification of the Higgs particle. He drew the audience's attention to the citation ... "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism..."

    To me, the words of the citation seem to have been very carefully chosen. There was evident enthusiasm regarding the CERN results, and for the potential for new results as they move to higher energy. I saw no evidence (other than the target of the award, to theory) to conclude that there was an apprehension of bias towards theory over experiment. But this is my opinion, based on one observation (n=1).

    Conflict disclosure: I am an experimental chemist.

  2. The decision is clear: Higgs and Englert never used Comic Sans.

  3. Maggie, you have a really great science blog. Please don't write "proving a theory".

  4. cegev says:

    It would seem to me far, far too early, especially by Nobel standards, to give a prize for experimental work on the Higgs this year.

  5. What a load of bullshit, these days they hand out Nobel prizes to anyone and everyone like it's goddamned Halloween candy. (Remember who won in 2009? So of course the MSM is all over this.) My dog could earn a Nobel prize and I don't even have a damn dog.

    This post is presented for the benefit of those who do not have relatives that use Facebook.

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