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Jim Baggott


Will There Be a Nobel Prize for the Higgs Boson and, If Yes, Who Will Get It?

Posted: 10/03/2012 1:35 pm

Of course, this will be a matter for the Nobel committee and it's often very difficult to anticipate the way that the committee's internal debates will go. The announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics is scheduled to take place on Tuesday 9 October, at around 11:45 a.m. or later.

The Higgs mechanism is an example of a phenomenon called spontaneous symmetry-breaking. There are many examples of this phenomenon we can find in 'everyday' life. If we had enough patience, we could imagine that we could somehow balance a pencil finely on its tip. We would discover that this is a very symmetric, but very unstable, situation. The vertical pencil looks the same from all directions.

But tiny disturbances in our immediate environment (such as small currents of air) are enough to cause it to topple over. When this happens, the pencil topples over in a specific, though apparently random, direction. The horizontal pencil no longer looks the same from all directions, and the symmetry is said to be spontaneously broken.

Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics with Sheldon Glashow for their work on the theory of the unified electro-weak force. This theory uses the Higgs mechanism to break the symmetry between the weak force and electromagnetism, in the process giving mass to the weak force carriers (the W and Z bosons) whilst leaving the photon mass-less.

Japanese-born American theorist Yoichiro Nambu was awarded a half-share of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on spontaneous symmetry-breaking in sub-atomic physics. The other recipients were Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Masakawa, for their work on the mechanism of symmetry-breaking which accounts for the existence of three families or generations of quarks.

It could be argued that the role of the mechanism by which spontaneous symmetry-breaking occurs in the electro-weak theory has already been adequately recognized through the award of these Nobel Prizes. But, make no mistake, the discovery of a new elementary particle is big news. It therefore seems very possible that the Nobel committee might choose to recognize the theoretical prediction of the Higgs boson itself.

But does the nature of the 4 July discovery provide sufficient experimental confirmation to justify the award of the 2012 Prize? I doubt it. And although the LHC has continued to churn out more data since the announcement, time is running out. It is very doubtful that ATLAS or CMS will be in a position to declare that the new boson is the Higgs boson before October.

If a Nobel Prize is awarded for the Higgs boson (if not in 2012, then in the years to come), who will get it? The four 1964 research papers were published by Belgian physicists Robert Brout and François Englert, two by Peter Higgs, and one by a team consisting of Americans Gerald Guralnik and Carl (Dick) Hagen and British physicist Tom Kibble. Sadly, Brout died in May 2011 after a long illness, and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

The Prize can be awarded only to three living recipients and, with five theorists potentially in the running, there's a lot at stake.

The promise of a potential Nobel Prize inevitably results in the detailed dissection and analysis of research papers in order to discover precisely who did what, when and why and so establish some kind of 'historical record.' This case is no different.

First to publish, in August 1964, were Brout and Englert. These physicists made no reference to the fact that the field should be accompanied by a field particle. They later argued that this is 'kind of obvious.' Their paper was followed by the two from Higgs, in September and October. It was in the first of these two papers that Higgs drew attention to the possibility of the particle that would come to carry his name.

Despite the fact that Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble were developing their ideas at much the same time, they published their paper only in November 1964. Although they had seen the papers by Brout and Englert and by Higgs, they merely acknowledged them in references, and did not alter their own paper before submitting it. And again, their interest was in the mechanism of spontaneous symmetry-breaking. They did not mention the possibility of a new field particle.

There can be little doubt that if there is a Prize for the Higgs boson, then Higgs will certainly receive a share. Perhaps an argument could be made to include Englert. But here's a further thought. The search for the Higgs boson has been the search for a particle that is, in some measure, involved in the mechanism of electro-weak symmetry-breaking. Higgs' own reference to a field particle was not specific about the nature of this particle. The first theorist really to define the particle that we now know as the Higgs boson was Weinberg, in his 1967 paper on the electro-weak theory. Of course, Weinberg has already been recognized by the Nobel committee for his work on this theory.

It is not impossible to win two Nobel Prizes, and there are precedents. If this Prize does become all about the prediction of the electro-weak Higgs boson, who knows?