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.
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)