Higgs deserves his nobel prize – but there’s more to physics than the fairytale lone genius

Image credit: @Hans G, Flickr

Everyone loves a fairytale. You might think that the 2013 physics Nobel prize is a fairytale too – two theoretical physicists predicting something unimaginably small and abstruse, that turns out not only to be the cornerstone of our modern understanding of particle physics but actually true and real too. With a wait of almost 50 years from prediction to the discovery of the Higgs boson, and a Nobel prize following the year after, surely this is the stuff of which physics dreams are made?

Of course it is. But just like a fairytale, the narrative of this prize tells a simple story that doesn’t always reflect the convoluted nature of scientific discovery. And that’s because Nobel prizes, although they honour and celebrate the best science, can no longer do so in the most appropriate way. Originally conceived when science could be advanced by talented and clever individuals or small groups, Nobel prizes are awarded to a maximum of three winners in any year. Sometimes three people are rewarded. In other years, it might be one or two.

This year the physics prize was awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert, two wonderful and well-deserved winners. We’re all so pleased that they and basic, fundamental science have been recognised and rewarded in this way. But the Nobel view is a fairytale view, because at the moment, there is no way that a Nobel prize can adequately capture all the work involved.

It’s a cosy idea to imagine a genius at work in splendid isolation, with unimaginably clever thoughts sparking out like fireworks to illuminate us. To reach into the innermost reaches of universe like the Higgs theorists, to delve deep inside through mathematics and pull out this part of the universe’s fabric, is such a moment of magic and genius. However, even the theorists involved in the original 1960’s publications far outnumber the magic Nobel number of three – as well as Higgs and Englert there was also Robert Brout, Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and C Richard Hagen, who themselves built on previous work by Philip Anderson and others, and they were followed by still more who incorporated the Higgs theory into the Standard Model of particle physics to provide our present-day understanding. The scientific process is a long tangled thread that interleaves the contributions and inspiration of many people. Higgs and Englert are central to developing the Higgs theory – but are also the first to point out that this theory wouldn’t exist in its present form without the work of others too.

For completeness, there’s also the matter of whether a theory is correct or not, and here experiment is the ultimate arbitrator. Until last year’s discovery, there was no proof that the Higgs boson existed at all. That’s why it has taken the Nobel prize committee almost fifty years to decide to award the prize. And ‘experiment’ reflects an even bigger collaboration. It is not just the 6000-odd members of the ATLAS and CMS experiments (although, as mentioned in the Nobel citation, they discovered the boson). It is also the people who designed and built the Large Hadron Collider who made that discovery possible. It is also the hundreds of particle physicists from previous experiments elsewhere who looked fruitlessly for the Higgs boson, but who narrowed down where it might exist, so that the Large Hadron Collider could be designed to find it.

Today, science is carried out in a world of international collaboration. It is a continual process of building on the work of others to achieve more. It’s so important to have something like the Nobel prizes to recognise the very best science that mankind can produce – but it might be time to acknowledge that it usually takes more than three people to do it. Perhaps it is time to consider naming teams and institutions as winners too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Nobel prizes could be awarded to a great and successful piece of science instead? That action would stamp it with the Nobel mark of greatness, and allow the main protagonists to be listed in the corresponding citation, much like ATLAS, CMS, CERN and LHC are in this year’s citation. That would allow us to keep the rich history of scientific progress in our fairytale.

Of course, being awarded a Nobel prize doesn’t mean that this branch of science now stops. At the Large Hadron Collider, we continue to study the behaviour of the Higgs boson, and await the 2015 post-shutdown data eagerly. We need that additional data to determine if our Higgs boson is really the Standard Model version, or one associated with a deeper and more exotic theory of the universe. If our Higgs turns out not to be the Standard Model Higgs, and provides our first sight of physics beyond it, that really would be a fairytale ending to this story.

Tara Shears

Tara Shears

Tara Shears is a particle physicist and professor of physics at the University of Liverpool. She has spent her career investigating the behaviour of fundamental particles and the forces holding them together, and has worked at experiments at CERN, the European centre for particle physics, and at the Fermilab particle physics facility near Chicago, USA. Tara joined the LHCb experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in 2004, where she works to this day.
Tara Shears

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