Blessed are those who illuminate the darkness by their thoughts and ideas

The title of this post comes from Haji Bektash Veli. He also said “Science illuminates the paths of truth.” He lived in the 13th century.

I remembered his famous sayings this morning when I heard the news that the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert. Exact wording of the announcement was:

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs “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”

I normally do not write any commentary on Nobel prizes in physics but I maintain a list: Nobel Laureates in Physics. This year’s prize is special in many respects. I felt that I had to say few words.

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs waited 49 years for this award. This is a sad commentary on how difficult the particle physics is. Experiments cost billions of dollars and it takes decades to plan and build the huge particle colliders and their detectors. If you are a particle theorist and publish an important idea today it may be another century before the experiments can definitely prove the correctness of your idea. This situation is unique to particle physics.

The curious history of the “mechanism” mentioned in the Nobel announcement is very colorful. The strange thing is that other people who built theories based on the assumption that this “mechanism” was true already received Nobel prizes for their work.

I kept saying “mechanism” because I don’t know what to call it anymore. It seems that the Nobel Foundation wants to refer to it as the BEH mechanism. For many years it was known as the Higgs mechanism.

The original papers were published in 1964. First of these papers was written by Robert Brout and François Englert. The second and third were written by Peter W. Higgs. The fourth one which was published shortly after the Higgs papers was written by Gerald Guralnik, Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen. M. Strassler mentions in his blog that these original papers were extremely short. The sum total of four papers was 5.5 pages.

Conceptual beginnings of the Higgs mechanism can be traced to Phillip W. Anderson (1962). He did not share the prize this year. He is already a Nobel laureate. He received a Nobel Prize for his work in condensed matter physics in 1977.

Nobel prizes are not given posthumously. Brout died in 1911; otherwise he would have shared the Nobel Prize this year. Gerald Guralnik, Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen were slighted simply because Nobel Prize cannot be shared by more than 3 people.

What about the people who actually built the collider LHC, the detectors CMS and ATLAS and analyzed huge amount of data. These are monumental projects involving heroic efforts. More than 5000 people worked on these projects in the last three decades. Don’t they deserve a Nobel? They certainly do. But, Nobel Foundation never awarded a physics prize to an institution or to an experimental collaboration such as CMS or ATLAS. It seems that they will not break their tradition.

In recent years the Nobel Foundation started publishing articles explaining the historical and scientific background of the Nobel Prizes. These articles are very readable. This year’s article is an excellent summary of the history of particle physics and it is the authoritative source on the history of the Higgs mechanism. I highly recommend this article:  Scientific Background on the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013

I also recommend the following commentaries
Peter Woit
Matt Strassler
Sean Carroll


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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