Does Peter Higgs Really Deserve a Nobel Prize?


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.


The Sweet Side of Nobel Prizes

What is the best predictor of a country’s ability to produce Nobel winners? Chocolate.

Wait, what?
Yes, a study is promoting the idea that countries that consume more chocolate produce more Nobel laureates. It’s been published on a scientific journal by a New York cardiologist, who got the idea from his research into flavanols, a type of antioxidants that help keep the brain young. Since chocolate in rich in them, he tried to plot a statistical correlation between the taste for chocolate and mental prowess. Amazingly, he found it worked: Switzerland, the country with the highest per capita chocolate consumption in the world, has given birth to more Nobel laureates than anyone else. China, who has a modest appetite for it, just two. The only country that deviates from the plot is Sweden: the chocolate predictor allows for just 14 of the 28 Nobels won by Swedes. But you could dismiss that entirely on the understandable bias the Nobel committee might have toward fellow compatriots.

But wait, is this guy for real? Well, even though the study is clearly light-hearted, the numbers are sound. The linear correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes is 0.791, where 1 would be a perfect match. That’s a very high value for social factors, and it shoots up to 0.862 if you don’t take sneaky Sweden into account. (In statistics, this number is called the Pearson correlation coefficient. Another factor that measures the probability of chance mudding the results, the p-value, is even better: p<0.0001. The target threshold is p<0.05, and lower is better).

There’s more research centered around strange predictors. What can you use to estimate the level of corruption of a country? Tips. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School on data from 32 countries found that high rates of corruption and high rates of tipping (or ‘prosocial gratuities’, as they call them) go together. Why? If you consider a tip as a way to ensure good service in the future, that is similar, in a way, to a bribe. So, tipping and corruption might both stem from the same predicament and their correlation is statistically measurable (The Pearson coefficient in this study was 0.6).

One of the most fascinating statistical correlations I’ve ever encountered links rainy days to admission rates at a Canadian medical school: fewer candidates were accepted when the weather was gloomy.  We all know that weather affects how we feel, but the notion that you should try to sustain job interviews when the sun is shining takes the idea to another level. (The p-value in this study was a decent 0.042).

The real jungle of strange predictors is economy. Sales of various items are periodically linked to its health. The trend was started by Alan Greenspan in the 1970s, when he said he looked at sales of men’s underwear as an indicator of how the economy was doing.
The assumption is that refreshing your underwear lineup will not be your top priority if you have trouble making the ends meet.

In the wake of this, researchers have come up with many different ways to assess the current state of the economy. Take the Box Index, for example: it measures the production levels of cardboard boxes used to ship everyday goods like beer, toothpaste or cereal. When they plunge, it’s because sales are slow. But that’s boring, right? Much more interesting is the idea the the length of women’s skirts might be tied to how much money is going around. The New York Magazine calls it the Hot Waitress Index: the hotter the waitress, the weaker the economy. Why? Because they attract more business when the money flow decreases. Sexist all you want, but effective. There’s more very weird indicators, including the number of unclaimed corpses at the morgue (funeral services are not cheap), mosquito infestations (home foreclosures create favorable breeding grounds), and the cover of Sport Illustrated magazine. Business Insider has a list.

And since you’ve made it this far, I might as well ask you: what’s in the picture that opens this post? A chocolate fountain? Chocolate pouring from the Heavens? Nope. It’s a lamp.

It’s called the Nemo ChocoLite Lamp and it’s made by Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina. So don’t underestimate the power of chocolate on the human brain yet.