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Fights over the Nobel prize for Higgs

Nature focuses on a political controversy over a future theoretical physics Nobel prize for the Higgs boson:

Physicists get political over Higgs
I have shared an office with Peter Higgs in Santa Barbara's KITP, a nice guy. And I do think that it's OK for the particle to be called after him - even though it obviously makes his name somewhat overexposed, especially given the relatively exceptional importance that the single paper about the God particle plays among his other papers. ;-)

The six people who published the same ideas as Higgs were, chronologically,
Robert Brout + François Englert in Belgium; Peter Higgs in Scotland; and finally Tom Kibble in London, along with his colleagues in the United States, Gerald Guralnik (at the time in London) and Carl R. Hagen.
All of these papers were published in 1964. The last one cited the first ones, visibly reducing the claims of a complete independence.

An Orsay, France conference last week was used to promote the meme that the first three authors should be ready for the Nobel prize - which, as you probably know, can be awarded at most to 3 people. Some people protested. Unless you are a Don of a PayPal or another mafia :-), you may be able to understand that some of the poor physicists may get upset about 1/3 of a million of dollars. :-)

Well, there are many important things that have not been said at all.

First, the Nobel prize for the Higgs mechanism in the Standard Model has already been distributed: Abdul Salam and Steven Weinberg received their fraction of the 1979 Nobel prize with Sheldon Glashow primarily for the "Weinberg toilet", as Sheldon Glashow called the Higgs sector because it's something that your apartment badly needs but it's not necessarily the greatest source of your pride.

Glashow himself was the key pioneer of the gauge-theoretical portion of the electroweak theory and his contributions began to be born in the early 1960s; the Higgs sector etc. was understood and added in the late 1960s.

Do you worry that GSW have already received the prize before the Higgs boson was seen? Well, they actually got the prize even 4 years before the W,Z bosons were seen - because it was damn clear that they would have been seen. And indeed, this clear knowledge turned out to be true. ;-)

Also, it's not being mentioned in the Nature article that Nambu essentially discovered the Higgs mechanism in 1960 while Philip Anderson did a similar thing in 1963. Both Gentlemen have already been given Nobel prizes for unrelated discoveries: in 2008 and 1977, respectively. The years show that Nambu in particular is a genuine visionary.

Well, I would also argue that some of the general rules of spontaneous symmetry breaking were actually discovered in the 1950 Landau-Ginzburg theory of superconductors that break the U(1) electromagnetic symmetry by the condensate of bosons which happen to be the Cooper pairs (as we know from another famous result). The photon also gets massive, in a sense, although the broken phase is not necessarily Lorentz-invariant (superconductors are not vacua) so some physics may change.

The Landau-Ginzburg paper itself was based on Landau's earlier theory of second-order phase transitions. Landau's status of a physics giant is unquestionable. And yes, he received his Nobel prize in 1962 which was pretty slow. To compare the speed, Landau got his Stalin prize already back in 1946 which was a more sensible timing! ;-)

I personally think that it is very wise that the Nobel prizes can't be given to more than 3 people. And I do think that the chronology has to play some role.

It's marginally OK to forget about those physicists who have already received a Nobel prize. So I find it pretty sensible to choose Brout, Englert, Higgs - although there has clearly been lots of related and relevant work (recall Goldstone whose name hasn't been mentioned yet - yes, he appears in the Nambu-Goldstone bosons).

The remaining three physicists in the list of six are very good physicists but I just dislike the idea of an ever more inclusive notion of "everyone" in the sentence "everyone deserves the same thing". Alfred Nobel defined very sensible rules to fight against this kind of inflation.

The experimental Higgs prize could be even more sensitive because it could potentially be given to a complete nobody who appeared at the right place in the right time - and we don't even know whether the right place is in Illinois or Switzerland while it's very likely that the right time is between 2011 and 2013 - but no one seems to care about this prize.

Also, I would find it way more difficult to choose both the theoretical and experimental Nobel prize winners for supersymmetry - which may be a task that could be awaiting its solution before the Higgs task because it may be easier to find SUSY. I personally think that there should be several - and I would say many - theoretical Nobel prizes for SUSY because its confirmation would be a truly exceptional breakthrough in physics that would surely outshine various CCDs and new colors of lasers for decades.

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snail feedback (2) :

reader maria said...

Your statement, “I find it pretty sensible to choose Brout, Englert, and Higgs”, looks at just one way of segmenting the work of six folks who will go down in history together.

Over the years I have met five of the six “mass mechanism” physicists all are deserving of a Nobel – if awarded for this topic. Maybe the APS 2010 Sakuari Prize is the last word on this. APS publishes Physical Review Letters where the papers were all published in 1964.

In regards to the three papers, I would suggest reading the three papers (BE, H, GHK) again as there are some differences that make any segmentation more complex than just order.

BE do not mention the boson - only the mechanism. There is also an obvious mistake on how the poles are handled on page 322. So they only really have claim to mechanism.

The PH PRL paper does have boson and mechanism and suggests Goldstone’s Theorem COULD fail in the radiation gauge - but does not show how.

GHK has the mechanism, the boson (bottom of page 586), and demonstrate explicitly how Goldstone theorem fails in a radiation gauge analysis. Again PH merely suggested that it could fail.

So the decision is not quite as easy as publication order - quality should probably factor in more than order due to all three papers were unique, done independently, and published essentially simultaneously. Also, 45 years of time makes things obvious which were not back in 1964.

My point is trying to segment this Nobel down to three is very difficult. The three papers have become part of physics lore and serve as the basis for mass and the standard model – all were referenced by Salam and Weinberg in their 1979 Nobel address – and Glashow at CERN’s recent 50 year celebration talk. In regards to the 1979 winners, Salam and Weinberg worked mostly off the GHK paper due to its completeness and their mutual link to Imperial College London in the 1960’s. Also, Salam won his award not on a paper but on talks – G and H were the first to hold significant discussions on this topic back in Cambridge, MA with Schwinger and Gilbert.

Again, segmenting these papers in any way is going to be difficult.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Maria, such decisions are never simple or clean, but what you have presented about the "inclusive" solution is just one particular opinion of ours and others and it's far from guaranteed that this is how "history" will remember it.

In particular, I doubt that the mechanism will ever be called in a way that remembers 6 people, or that some students will be expected to memorize these names. It just doesn't sound good.

If one is getting 1/6 of such a discovery, it may be a great thing for a few years, but from the viewpoint of infinity, a 1/6 of such a discovery is not something that should never be forgotten. In other words, you exaggerate the importance of accuracy in these attributions.

And again, I just do think that the chronology and priority do matter - a lot.