The Nobel Prize Randomness

This morning they announced the award of the 2013 Nobel prize in physics to François Englert and Peter Higgs for the theoretical work on the Higgs boson and mass-generation mechanism. My first reaction was one of sadness. The Nobel committee are restricted to awarding the prize to at most three people and in this case, perhaps much more clearly than in most other cases, this forced them to exclude deserving people.

On the theory side there were at least seven other strong theoretical contenders, namely Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble, who wrote an important paper independently of the others. Then there were the early achievements of Phillip Anderson and Jeffrey Goldstone, whose work was very relevant and the two Russians Sacha Migdal and Sacha Polyakov, whose paper appeared later after having being initially rejected. Finally, Robert Brout (who died the year before the discovery of the Higgs) co-wrote the paper with Englert, but the Nobel cannot be made posthumously.

On the observational side there were the thousands of scientists who built, ran and analysed the data from the two detectors: ATLAS and CMS,  who actually made the discovery of the Higgs at the LHC. They get no love from the Nobel committee. It isn’t hard to figure out why. They had only one slot left. Who should get it? There are many interesting discussions of who should get credit, e.g. herehere and here. Many would argue that Tom Kibble should have got it, but in the end the committee chose the conservative route.

My sadness comes from thinking of those who have been excluded from recognition, but much more I think this highlights an unfortunate aspect of the way we anoint with royal jelly certain people as “being worthy” and leave out others, in Nobel prizes and much more broadly when credit is given in physics.

The difficulties in awarding a prize and the randomness involved in who did the original research is beautifully described in the Nobel lecture of David Politzer who shared the 2004 Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of asymptotic freedom. The main theme of his entire lecture is the dilemma of attribution and I highly recommend it, especially to young physicists.

Tom Kibble himself commented that the work just didn’t seem that important at the time. This same idea is reflected beautifully in Politzer’s lecture were he says:

           “A key first step was to know the Yang-Mills beta function…By the way, Erick Weinberg was supposed to compute it for an appendix of his thesis, to carry out a generalization of a renormalization group flow argument that appears in the Coleman-Weinberg paper, except for a realistic, non-Abelian weak interaction theory. But, in the end, I guess he figured he had enough stuff to get his degree, and it was time for him to move on to something new. I had actually hoped we’d compare notes, but he never attempted the calculation.”

Yes, the Nobel prize for asymptotic freedom ending up going to something that was originally going to be an appendix in someone else’s thesis.

In this regard I like this parody that came out a week or so before the announcement of the prize in which it was “announced” that the Nobel prize had instead been awarded to the Higgs Boson itself. In many ways that seems fitting because we are marking a step forward in human knowledge, not who happened to submit their paper first.

You can read the original Nobel prize-winning papers by here.

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