After the (tentative) discovery of the Higgs boson earlier this year, it was generally expected that the 2013 Nobel prize for physics would be awarded to the theoretical physicists who, fifty years ago, postulated the concept of a particle that would give all the other elementary particles their mass (ok.. this is a bit of a simplification, lol).
And so it happened. On 8-10-2013 the Nobel committee awarded the prize to Peter Higgs and François Englert. François Englert? I had never even heard about this man!
Here they are, Englert (Belgian) to the left and Higgs (British) to the right.
I was intrigued and started surfing and reading. Not about the theoretical background, that is way to complicated for me. I was interested in the human aspects. The result is this post.
In the second half of the last century, physicists all over the world were trying to build a model for the fundamental forces in nature. This resulted in what now is called the Standard Model. See my post God’s Particle for (a little bit) more information.
When a physicist finds something new and interesting, of course he wants to publish it. For example in the Physical Review, one of the leading physics magazines. As it was peer-reviewed, it could take easily half a year after submitting your paper before it got published. Therefore it was decided in 1958 to create Physical Review Letters, a weekly journal meant for short contributions. Time between submission and publication a couple of weeks only.
When I was doing my PhD research, there was always a copy of the Physical Review Letters in the library of our institute, available for perusal.
And it was a dream for many young scientists to publish something in this highly valued journal.
By the way, I never did…:-)
It was in 1964, that Peter Higgs (then 35 years old) published a letter in this journal: Broken symmetries and the masses of gauge bosons , submitted August 31 and published October 19. It was this article that finally resulted, almost 50 years later, in the Nobel Prize. Here it is ( don’t try to understand it)
So what about Englert? Well, he and Robert Brout (Belgian American) had published a few weeks earlier, in the same magazine, an article with the title Broken symmetry and the mass of gauge vector mesons ! Submitted June 26 and published August 31. Comparing the titles you probably will accept, even without any understanding, that the two contributions basically cover the same ground!
And that is not all. A third article was published a few weeks later, again in the same journal. Thomas Kibble (Imperial College, London) had been studying with two American guest scientists, Gerard Guralnik and Carl Hagen, the same problem of symmetry breaking and mass, and come to similar conclusions. Their paper was submitted on October 12 and published November 16.
Three papers within three months. Independent research, no doubt about that, it was just that the time was ripe for it…:-). There has also been recognition by the physics community for all six authors. Three years ago the American Physical Society has awarded the prestigious Sakuarai prize to them.
In the years after publication, when the Standard Model was developed, it became customary to talk about the Higgs boson, the Higgs field, the Higgs mechanism. Not really fair to the others, although Higgs was not to blame for that. Abdus Salam, one of the fathers of the Standard Model, used the name Higgs-Kibble boson, but it did not catch.
Recently, when it became clear that a Nobel Prize was coming, the discussion started again and became a bit less friendly. In a 2012 physics conference there was a directive that in contributions the name Higgs-boson should be avoided and replaced by BroutEnglertHiggs boson or by SM Scalar boson ! It caused a bit of an uproar, many physicists objected.
Here is a part of the program of this 2012 Moriond conference
Even in these alternatives the work of Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble remains invisible, so there was also a suggestion to rename the Higgs boson as BEHGHK boson. (the initials of the six authors).
Kibble found a name change silly, but Hagen objected to the name Higgs boson, because: ‘The rest of us are fighting not just for our ego but for our place in the annals of physics.‘ Read more about this controversy here
A Nobel Prize can be awarded only to people who are still alive and to a maximum of three people. That is the rule. So, what would the Nobel Committee decide? One option would have been, to choose one person in each of the three groups. Brout passed away two years ago, so the choice for the first two groups would be simple: Englert and Higgs. But what about the Imperial College group? How to choose between Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen?
I have read somewhere that this year the meeting of the committee about the Physics Nobel Prize took longer than usual…:-) Finally it was decided to leave the third paper out and award the prize to Englert and Higgs.
I think that Kibble will be phlegmatic over the outcome. Not so sure about Guralnik, Hagen will be disappointed.
To honour all six, here is a collage
Theoretical physicists are human too ..:-)