Scuffling over Prizes

This post is also available at The Guardian.

I have to say I think this is all a bit pathetic.

I had thought there were three contenders for a Nobel Prize when* the Higgs Boson is finally discovered. Peter Higgs, Brout and Engelert. Apparently there are six. This is a problem because the Nobel can only be shared three ways.


At ICHEP, the Tevatron Higgs speaker talked about the “BEHHGK” boson (all the relevant initials), since they all very recently received a prize from the American Physical Society. Then there was a storm of emails to the organisers of this workshop I attended because they did not credit Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble. Since two of the three are American (Kibble is British) I guess it’s easy enough to see why some US physicists might be agitated at this apparent failure to respect the verdict of the APS.

Note this argy-bargy sort-of-assumes the Higgs boson will be discovered, and additionally assumes that the prize won’t go to anyone involved in actually discovering it*.

The second of these is a pretty safe bet. Most Nobel prizes in particle physics go to theorists**.

I don’t think this is due to a theory cartel, it’s just that large experiments are enormously collaborative, or they don’t work. In fact there are many other theorists doing key calculations without which the experimental Higgs exclusion plots would not work either. Fortunately it’s possible to make a career in particle physics “simply” by making excellent and unique contributions to a fantastic discovery*. But it’s probably impossible to win a Nobel Prize that way.

… and another three?

Personally I think this is a bit of a problem with the whole concept of prizes, but then I would say that because I’ve never won one.

Like the intense competition to actually find the Higgs boson*, this rather undignified scuffling (which I don’t blame on the theorists concerned) does show that this is a really burning question in science.

Whoever goes to Stockholm*, and whether it is the LHC or a combination of the LHC and the Tevatron that eventually discovers the Standard Model Higgs Boson*, the real thrill would be the breakthrough in our knowledge of mass and the fundamental forces. In that sense, to quote Lewis Carroll, “Everyone has won, and all must have prizes”.

Though it does bother me a bit that he put those words into the mouth of the dodo. Perhaps I am just not Darwinian enough.


** Didn’t check this statement. I will do.***

*** Did check. Certainly true recently (last 10 years or more)


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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7 Responses to Scuffling over Prizes

  1. Pingback: Into the unknown « Life and Physics

  2. charles says:

    Great job, nice post.

  3. Larry says:

    Good article on a timely topic. Yes – it is a shame the French made this political by trying to re-write 46 years of particle physics history. Total crap as Tilman Plehn points out.

    Few people who weigh-in (pun intended) on this topic have read the papers. The publish order of the papers is clear. However quality of the papers is lost over the years – for example BE do not predict the boson or note a zero-mass particle. Higgs does not show how the Goldstone theorem is avoided – just that it could. GHK do both of those in a radiation gauge.

    One person who did read all three 1964 PRL papers was Zinn-Justin who spoke on this in France. His slides are below.

    Let’s hope the physics community and Nobel academy do the right thing.

  4. Tilman Plehn says:

    This looks like our colleagues are politically ready for the Higgs discovery. Try to write a paper on the Higgs and not cite the GHK paper; you’ll immediately get an email reminding you of the proper way to cite people. All total bullshit, let’s find this thing first and let the Nobel committee deal with the rest. Experimental speakers who feel they need to make this point obviously don’t have anything else to tell us… Back to work, guys!!!

  5. Larry says:

    I thought I posted something here. Where did it go? Did the God Particle make it dissappear?

  6. SadAboutScience says:

    Your article begs the question: Where is the next contemporary*, British**, physics/astronomy Nobel going to come from?

    * so not something postulated in the mid ’60s – no bias against the Higgs, but I’m thinking about what the exciting research being done now.

    ** meaning a Brit has at least a share of the prize, and by implication that a Brit is leading the science, not just a minor cog in a bigger machine.

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