Does Peter Higgs Really Deserve a Nobel Prize?

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The Nobel Prize for Physics was just assigned to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for the discovery of the famous Higgs boson.

What’s wrong with that? Mister Higgs has the boson named after himself, and there’s another guy sharing the honor for good measure, right?

In fact, this decision exposes some major flaws in the policy for Nobel assignment and robs other people, not just a few but thousands, of well deserved recognition.

The story of the Higgs boson starts in 1964. That year, three papers that theorized the existence of the elusive particle, the last to be observed in what we call the Standard Model of physics, were published almost simultaneously. Francois Eglert and Robert Brout released their work in August, Peter Higgs in October, and a team of three other researchers (Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble) followed suit in November. This is normal in science: discoveries tend to happen at a tipping point, and rarely they are the work of a lone genius (save relativity).

So, a total of six people are currently credited with coming up with the theory behind the boson, even though Higgs got the honor of the name (interestingly, bosons themselves are named after a person, Indian physicist Satyendra Bose, like the other class of fundamental particles, fermions, after Enrico Fermi). This happened after another physicist, Ben Lee, first addressed the particle as “Higgs-like” at Fermilab in 1972. Then a couple of Nobel winners mentioned a “Higgs-Kibble mechanism” in their acceptance speech, and the name stuck. Higgs himself has never been too happy about it and refers to his particle as a scalar boson. But names are important, and Higgs became the herald of this discovery even though, in reality, he wasn’t even the first one to publish something about it. Englert and Brout came first. Englert got a Nobel today, so why didn’t Brout? Because he’s dead.

The Nobel Prize has two main rules: it cannot be assigned posthumously, and to a maximum of three people. The key word being people. Outside of the Nobel Prize for Peace, currently a Nobel can’t be given to a group or institution. That’s a problem, because science is no longer the work of pioneering individuals. Gone are the times when Marie Curie would sentence herself to death by handling radioactive materials in her basement. There’s no more Wilhelm Rontgen repeatedly exposing his wife to deadly X-rays in the name of discovery. Research is now a collaborative effort conducted in ISO-approved labs with safety first in mind. Science papers can use more pages to list all the contributors than for the subject matter itself. It is weirdly anachronistic to not acknowledge this huge shift in how science is being made, and it leads to unfair decisions.

Back in 1964, there was no way to instrumentally confirm the existence of the famed boson. To do that, you need a huge particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Geneva. It took 48 years to design and build the technology that finally allowed us to find the particle, as CERN announced on July 4, 2012. For over a year, research was conducted by two separate groups called Atlas and CMS, after the names of the two particle detectors that analyze the results of experiments being run in the accelerator. An editorial on Scientific American that calls for the rules of Nobel assignment to change estimates that no less than 6,000 people contributed to these experiments. But since the prize can only be given to individuals, their effort is not recognized here.

The Nobel committee was faced with a difficult decision. They had six theoretical physicists all credited for the same discovery. One had passed away, but there were still two in excess. And then they had a couple of large teams lead by two additional individuals. A grand total of seven people plus thousands. They chose the path they thought was most logical: give the award to Higgs, the namesake, and to the living author of the paper that was published first. Higgs does deserve it, to answer the question in my provocative title, but the Nobel people chose to ignore the group of three that compounded the theoretical research, and most importantly to ignore the two groups that actually found the particle. Even though the assignment press release mentions them briefly (“…which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”), that simply isn’t enough.

Science has evolved. Its most prestigious award should do the same.

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