The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013

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It is great whenever a scientific breakthrough is so big that everybody knows the Nobel prize will be awarded according to the original wish of its atoning patron: to honor those who during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. It was the case for high $T_\mathrm{C}$ superconductivity, and will repeat for the great challenges of science, such as bringing $T_\mathrm{C}$ to room temperature, or packaging a useful quantum computer.

This year, the prize went to Higgs and one of the others involved in the eponymous particle (it turned out to be Englert).

The prize goes:

for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

At this point I have lost 10€. Of course Higgs deserves the prize (as does Englert, and a few others who did not get it). But the context of its award breaks a tradition in the prize for Physics which, I believe, is the most prestigious of the series, only on account that it is the most seriously and carefully attributed one.

There are many cases of outstanding theoretical discoveries that were not awarded the prize the way Higgs got his, including no less than relativity and quantum mechanics, the two colossal pillars of modern physics.

In the case of relativity, arguably the most beautiful, self-contained and satisfying theoretical construct we have, not only the prize did not go to Einstein for that (instead it went to him for services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect), but relativity was even explicitly ruled out of the award, as it carries on:

without taking into account the value that will be accorded your relativity and gravitation theories after these are confirmed in the future.

Note here, "after these are confirmed in the future". This was in 1921. You probably have in mind that Eddington's famous experiment was in 1919. The latter was to Einstein's bending of spacetime what the CERN experiment is to the Higgs field.

About the same thing happened with the award to Heisenberg (1932), Schrödinger and Dirac (1933), attributed in 1933 to them all in maximum confusion as to whether the quantum theory had proven correct enough, and if so, which version of it. Quantum mechanics in its various forms, with waves or matrices, with relativity or not, has always be exceptionally accurate at describing experiments. But still it exerted this incredible display of cautiousness in giving a Nobel to it.

That brings us back to Higgs. The CERN is not part of the award, although it is mentioned. From the mention, I learn that the Higgs boson is then officially discovered, while, not being an expert, I thought it was still at the stage of a preliminary promising indication. Not that Wikipedia should be the most trusted source in the matter (maybe it is), but the free Encyclopedia is not as assertive as the Nobel committee:

The Higgs boson is an elementary particle tentatively confirmed to exist on 14 March 2013. The discovery appears to confirm the existence of the Higgs field.

(I have cut some passages, the full version is the opening text of the current version at the time of writing). The rest of the text carries on in the conditional.

The CERN itself maybe has more authority. This is what one can glean from their websites, such as the CERN courier:

  • preliminary new results further elucidate the particle discovered last year and the new particle is looking more and more like a Higgs boson.
  • It remains an open question, however, whether this is the Higgs boson of the Standard Model of particle physics, or possibly the lightest of several bosons predicted in some theories that go beyond the Standard Model. Finding the answer to this question will take time.

A particle that fits is definitely there, but it didn't sink in. In the light of history, is the level of confidence in what it really is and what else it could be, enough to make it a clear cut Nobel prize? I didn't think so. It already missed the Nobel prize last year (the announcement, that I followed online, was on 4 July (2012)), and if it was to skip CERN from the award, what difference does it really make now? Somehow I feel this tampers down the prestige of the theorist: to award the theoretical model based on an experimental report that is itself left out of the prize. Higgs' model is important enough to win the prize anytime, not in the wake of the massive public attention that was generated from the CERN results. If it has to be thanks to the experiment, then the omission of CERN as a recipient is hard to understand. I have read here and there that it was impossible to recognize everybody's contribution. Which is true, given that the prize is limited to three addressees. But then, why stick to two?

So, while it is great whenever a scientific breakthrough is so big that everybody knows the Nobel prize will be awarded next time, I was cheated out of the fun of it. I was pretty sure that against all the odds in favor, the committee would be faithful to its tradition of making it harder for the stronger contenders. As I saw that Hawking stated that the prize should go to the Higgs indeed, it occurred to me that this was a splendid time to honor him instead, since he belongs to the list of those that did not get the award based on the exact same sort of strict adherence to an almost unscientific requirement of fully established results. Then Higgs would either get it later without having to shed tears at CERN from the sheer force of the pen and paper only, or with them when it is accepted which symmetry breaking boson they really found.