It was announced less than 24 hours ago, but rows over who deserves credit have already broken out. Melbourne Australia scientists gather for awards.
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It’s good news for physicists, but a big headache for the Nobel committee.

The discovery – or near discovery – of the Higgs boson, will see someone win a Nobel prize, but deciding who deserves credit for the work is a minefield. Traditionally, the science Nobel prizes are given to a maximum of three people, whose contributions are judged to be the most important.

British physicist Peter Higgs congratulates the experiment team after last night's announcment.

British physicist Peter Higgs congratulates the experiment team after last night’s announcement. Photo: Reuters
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The rule is archaic in that it harks back to a time when much of science was done by individuals or smaller groups. Two teams of scientists at Cern, amounting to thousands of people, carried out the painstaking work of spotting traces of the particle amid the subatomic debris of more than a thousand trillion collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider. All deserve credit for that effort.

But this is the least of the Nobel committee’s problems. The prize is more likely to go to theoretical physicists who worked on the theory almost 50 years ago. Here the parentage becomes more muddled.

Six physicists published the theory within four months of each other in 1964. They built on the work of others.

Physicists applaud the Higgs boson announcement in Melbourne.

Physicists applaud the announcement last night in Melbourne. Photo: Angela Wylie
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The first to publish, that August, were Robert Brout and Francois Englert at the Free University of Brussels. Brout died in 2011, and the award cannot be given posthumously.

Second to publish was Peter Higgs, with two papers on the theory in September and October 1964. In his second, he became the first to mention explicitly that the theory demanded a new particle in nature, which was given the name Higgs boson in 1972.

Third to publish was a group of three theorists, including two US researchers, Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik, and a British physicist, Tom Kibble. Their work was published in November.

Professor Geoffrey Taylor.P

Professor Geoffrey Taylor. Photo: Angela Wylie

All three teams worked independently.

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So there are at least five living physicists who can lay claim to the Nobel prize. If the particle discovered at Cern is confirmed to be the Higgs boson, then Higgs is certain to be honoured. That leaves four physicists competing for two places. Englert published first, and would be hard to dismiss. That leaves one place.

Rows over who deserves credit have already broken out. In 2010, the US physicists complained when the organisers of a conference in Paris on the Higgs particle credited only Higgs, Englert and Brout for the theory.

The quandary raises a familiar issue for the Nobel committee. Restricting those honoured with a Nobel helps maintain their prestige. But in modern science, few discoveries are born in final form from so few parents.

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Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

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