A tiny particle predicted long before the world's largest particle collider could confirm its existence has earned two scientists the coveted Nobel Prize in physics. But Nobel committee rules limiting the winners of the top physics prize to a maximum of three people has stirred up debate over whether the prize process oversimplifies how modern science works.
The Nobel Prize for the theoretical discovery of the Higgs boson, a tiny particle that explains why the building blocks of the universe have mass, went to Peter Higgs, from the UK, and Francois Englert from Belgium. They represent just two of the six scientists who made the Higgs boson prediction as part of three independent groups in 1964—not to mention the thousands of scientists and engineers who helped confirm the existence of the particle at the 27-kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Geneva.
Glamorous prizes such as the $1.2 million Nobel celebrate the idea of the "great man" (or woman) by recognizing just a few individuals, said Ashutosh Jogalekar, a chemist, in a blog post for Scientific American. That encourages the public to believe that modern science is still driven by the occasional brilliant genius who works alone to advance his or her field of science—an idea that distorts the reality of many scientists and engineers working together in labs or within international teams.
Such limits on the Nobel Prize award stem from the prize's origins 113 years ago. It was established during a time when individuals, rather than groups, still made the biggest discoveries while working alone with "equipment costing a few hundred dollars," Jogalekar said.
By comparison, confirmation of the Higgs boson particle came from the Large Hadron Collider, a huge international science project with a price tag of more than $4 billion in construction costs alone. The choice to focus on the theorists who predicted the Higgs Boson ignores the thousands of "experimentalists" working at LHC who came up with the real-world evidence to confirm the predictions.
But the Nobel Committee still faced a tough choice even with its focus on the theorists. Higgs published the first explanation of his namesake particle in 1964, but was not the first to describe the theory behind the particle. That honor went to the team of Englert and Robert Brout, a deceased colleague, who first suggested how elementary particles get their mass by interacting with an invisible field that fills up all of space. (Englert and Brout did not explicitly mention the idea of the Higgs boson particle.)
A third team of physicists—including Gerald Guralnik, Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen—independently published about the same idea at about the same time. None of the third team's members shared in the Nobel Prize honor, but Kibble, a physicist at the Imperial College London, issued a gracious statement congratulating Englert and Higgs after the award was announced.
Hagen, a physicist at the University of Rochester in New York, had said he would prefer the award went to none of the five surviving physicists rather than just some, during a Telegraph interview before the Nobel Prize announcement. He has also backed the idea of changing the Higgs boson particle name to something else, according to BBC News.
Higgs himself has agreed with that idea by preferring to call the particle a "scalar boson," and reportedly has expressed discomfort over his "rock star" status. The physicist, perhaps preferring to avoid the incoming storm of media attention, said he would not be available to news reporters today.
This year's Nobel Prize for physics may go down in history as one of the most controversial, even if physicists all seemed to believe that the Nobel committee must recognize the "rock star event of the decade" in some form, according to the New York Times. Still, Mark Jackson, a theoretical physicist at the Paris Centre for Cosmological Physics, pointed out in Scientific American that the prize is no stranger to controversy with its "not-so-noble" history of overlooking certain scientific contributors—especially women. And IEEE Spectrum detailed an ugly dispute over the Nobel award for the invention of the charge coupled device in 2010.
The Nobel committee might do well to consider overhauling the antiquated three-person limit on the physics prize, Jogalekar said. Otherwise the public might overlook the reality of modern scientific discovery that more often involves teams working across international borders rather than the lone genius in his or her lab.
"This is a cause for concern, because it’s the same public that’s going to fund the science leading to discoveries like the Higgs. It is unlikely that they will support the right model of science if they are constantly shown the wrong one. This is a message which I think the Nobel Foundation should seriously ponder."
Photo: Maximilien Brice/CERN
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.