Physics Nobel goes to Englert and Higgs; Sean Carroll kvetches a bit

October 8, 2013 • 4:34 am

Well, contrary to Sean Carroll’s guess, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this morning to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert. The news came out only about 20 minutes ago, and is the subject of a terse New York Times piece:

STOCKHOLM — Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two scientists for the “theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.”

The physics prize announcement was delayed by one hour, which is highly unusual. The academy gave no immediate reason, other than saying on Twitter that it was “still in session” at the original announcement time.

The academy decides the winners in a majority vote on the day of the announcement.

Why the delay? I have no idea, but there has been a lot of speculation about who, exactly, should get the prize for the Higgs boson.  Nobels are awarded to at most three people, and there were a gazillion experimentalists who contributed to their discovery (they, of course, don’t get the gold). Perhaps there were last-minute ruminations in Stockholm?

Sean Carroll beefed about the prizes in general in a post at Preposterous Universe, “The Nobel Prize is really annoying.” Carroll says he’s coming around to Richard Feyman’s view, which is that prizes in science, and the Nobel in particular, are bad things. I tend to agree. I remember Feynman saying that he resigned from the National Academy of Science because, he claimed, their sole purpose was to determine who to let in and who to keep out.

Carroll dislikes the Nobels for three reasons:

1. There are at most three winners.

The most annoying of all the annoying aspects is, of course, the rule in physics (and the other non-peace prizes, I think) that the prize can go to at most three people. This is utterly artificial, and completely at odds with the way science is actually done these days. In my book I spread credit for the Higgs mechanism among no fewer than seven people: Philip Anderson, Francois Englert, Robert Brout (who is now deceased), Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble. In a sensible world they would share the credit, but in our world we have endless pointless debates (the betting money right now seems to be pointing toward Englert and Higgs, but who knows).

2.  It’s the theoreticians and not the experimentalists who get them.

The folks who should really be annoyed are, of course, the experimentalists. There’s a real chance that no Nobel will ever be given out for the Higgs discovery, since it was carried out by very large collaborations. If that turns out to be the case, I think it will be the best possible evidence that the system is broken. I definitely appreciate that you don’t want to water down the honor associated with the prizes by handing them out to too many people (the ranks of “Nobel Laureates” would in some sense swell by the thousands if the prize were given to the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, as they should be), but it’s more important to get things right than to stick to some bureaucratic rule.

Indeed. If you can give the Peace Prize to organizations (e.g., Doctors Without Borders), then why not to entire groups of experimentalists? Somehow it seems wrong to laud the people who postulated the Higgs, but neglect those who discovered it.  Both groups are essential to get the truth.  (I note, of course, that experimentalists have gotten the Prize in physics, but, given the large groups needed to confirm discoveries that require accelerators, that seems on the way out.

3. They create a bad climate for science.

The worst thing about the prizes is that people become obsessed with them — both the scientists who want to win, and the media who write about the winners. What really matters, or should matter, is finding something new and fundamental about how nature works, either through a theoretical idea or an experimental discovery. Prizes are just the recognition thereof, not the actual point of the exercise.

Again I agree. The whole notion of Prizes for science rankles a bit—though I have to say I’m not pure enough to turn any down! The real prize in science is the thrill of discovery—of finding out something that nobody’s seen before. Or, for theoreticians, to posit the existence of something that, many years later, gets found.  How cool is that? Prizes seem to me to corrupt that system a bit, and in some cases even create animosities between groups vying for the Nobel. I won’t name names, but I know of one famous scientist who, on his deathbed, was hugely concerned about whether he’d get a specific award before he died. That seems to me a bit pathetic.  (On the other hand, awards may spur on progress as people strive to be the first to discover something. I’m sure that’s the case for the Pauling/Watson & Crick rivalry for the structure of DNA.)

Don’t get me wrong: like Sean, I think this year’s physics prize is well deserved; as he notes, “. .  if any subset of the above-mentioned folks are awarded the prize this year or next, it will be absolutely well-deserved — it’s epochal, history-making stuff we’re talking about here.”

But he adds:

The griping from the non-winners will be immediate and perfectly understandable, but we should endeavor to honor what was actually accomplished, not just who gets the gold medals.

And I wonder if the experimentalists are feeling a wee bit overlooked this morning.


Notes added in proof:

1. I’m an experimentalist, so I may be biased.
2. I have less objection to prizes in literature, as authors don’t really compete for that award, and great authors often aren’t widely recognized (or handsomely remunerated).

47 thoughts on “Physics Nobel goes to Englert and Higgs; Sean Carroll kvetches a bit

  1. I left a comment at Sean’s article, where I said that if those involved in the original colliding-beam experiment (CBX) in 1965 had been awarded a Nobel, experimentalists may have had more recognition in subsequent years. It’s only a “hunch” but there could be some truth to it.

    1. I agree, Rosalind Franklin should have shared the 1962 Phys/Med prize and Fischer Black should have shared the 1997 Economics prize (although his role was acknowledged.) Both died before the gong was handed out.

      1. Robert Noyce also should have shared with Jack Kilby for the integrated circuits, but was eliminated by the no posthumous rule.

        This is especially true because while both inventions were independent and basically simultaneous, Noyce’s version of the invention was a lot closer to what became the practical mass production method.

      2. At least there was a reason for Rosalind Franklin not sharing the award as she was deceased; however, given the restriction to 3, even had she still been alive, it is doubtful that she would have shared because then one of the 3 who did share would have to have been excluded. However, Wilkins, Crick, and Watson shared the Nobel Prize for physiology; AFAIK, it would have been kosher, had Franklin still been alive, to award her the prize in physics or chemistry for her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA.

        By the way, relative to the business of exclusion, it should be noted that Chien-Shiung Wu should have shared the prize in physics with Lee and Yang as she performed the experiment demonstrating the non-conservation of parity in weak interactions. In addition, Lise Meitner should have shared the prize in physics with Otto Hahn for splitting the atom of U235.

    2. Well you can’t take it with you, and are in no position to know or to be offended about not receiving the award.

      Some formal acknowledgement would probably be nice for surviving friends and family members. However fifty years after the event everyone who cares is keenly aware of the role Franklin (for example) played in the DNA story, while many folks forget that Wilkins was the third name on the docket, or don’t really know what his contribution was.

      1. Posthumous awards are not for the benefit of the individual being awarded, or even just their family, but for the benefit of the field, and even of society as a whole.

  2. Re: Jerry’s note 2. I’m not really sure that most awardees think they are competing for a Nobel when they do the work. Even if they are thinking that way I would have to assume it’s not the primary driver. The significance of many findings only becomes obvious once we get an answer, although perhaps this is less true in theoretical physics.

    1. I had a physics prof at Stanford ( who shall remain nameless) who gushed shamelessly and often about the possibility of winning the prize. He was apparently a brilliant researcher but lousy teacher. Everyone’s eyes rolled when he mentioned the Nobel.

      Btw, so glad Jerry is sticking to precise mathematical nomenclature with his use of gazillion:-))

    2. Having met over a 15 Physics Nobel Laureates (7 of whom did not have the prize and then got it later) I can say that few, if any, are driven ‘initially’ for the Nobel prize. There is a definite sense that there is jockying for the prize in later parts of a career.

      In physics, a field of research often times establishes itself as the prize, not so much the participants. In the end, it is who is on top or who initiated the field and above who is still alive.

  3. Add to the list of people who exaggerate the importance of the Nobel:

    University Administrators — who love to add Nobel Laureates to the collections of famous faculty (expensive, but hey, we’ll just pay the adjuncts a little less) and

    Historians — biographers in particular seem to love to include Nobel moments as key points in a scientist’s career. Often they are far to late for that, or say more about the Nobel committee than the scientist, e.g., Einstein winning for the photoelectric effect but not for Relativity, or how Marie Curie’s 2nd Nobel was almost sacrificed on the altar of tabloid journalism about her personal life.

    1. That list should also include at least one university ranking system- the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University

  4. I’m also not a fan of science prizes for all the reasons given above, plus also that fact that it ends up privileging those subjects that happen to have a Nobel prize.

    Hence the pretend Nobel prize in economics which is solely there to make economics look like a more serious subject than it really is.

    Indeed, any prize that is based on the deliberations of a judging panel (like Nobel prizes or gymnastics), rather than on direct competition (like football or running) seems fundamentally flawed.

    1. I am not sure that your example is a fair comparison. Something like Gymnastics can be objectified to a certain degree, but due to the nature of the endeavor a win is dependent on people deciding how many points to award, some of which are, rightly I think, specifically for aesthetics. In something like football, though subjectivity is still a factor to a smaller degree because of refs making calls, there are clear objective goals to measure that indicate who wins.

      To me this seems similar to questions of value vs questions of facts that can be assessed empirically. Both are always involved in real life, but one is usually dominant over the other in a given type of competition due simply to the nature of the competition. I think the Nobels are with gymnastics over in the “questions of value” group, only maybe even more so.

    2. Ah yes… the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” as with much economics based on an assumption: “assume we have a Nobel prize”

      1. Or as some cynic said, “If engineers were as good at engineering as economists are at managing the economy, the casualties would be staggering”. 😉

  5. Each award pumps $1.2 million extra into science. That’s a good thing. And human nature being what it is, there is probably no method of doling out that money that’s going to satisfy everyone, or which everyone is going to think is fair. So IMO the problems with the Nobel system do not lead me to the belief that such awards should be abandoned.

    Having said that, I generally agree with Carroll as well as everyone above about the flaws. Modern scientific discoveries often have many significant contributors. Confirmation experiments are often a critical part of the discovery, despite not being as sexy as the original theory development. And both the size of collaborations and the uncertainty in a discovery’s impact at the time it’s made make it likely that one or more significant contributors may be dead by the time the value of the discovery is recognized.

    1. Each award pumps $1.2 million extra into science.

      Wellll… sometimes. But I know that one of the awardees in Physiology or Medicine in 1982 started driving a new BMW soon thereafter.

      1. A good point about Dr. Bose, perhaps, though the article did have a flavor of “how come they always snub Indians?”; but did you notice the ad about “quantum jumping” right below? – I was tempted to look just for the laughs but was concerned what else might be on the site in the way of malware.

  6. “I’m not pure enough to turn any down” – I disagree – I reckon that you would turn down a Templeton!

    1. It might be fun to accept the prize and then do something visibly anti-Templeton with it. Like donating the prize money to a prominent rationalist / atheist group with a history of opposing the Templeton foundation. Or producing and running nice large anti-Templeton ads in strategically chosen publications.

    2. I think of it in term of opportunity cost. I’d prefer Templeton money go to unbiased rationalist science who do good research, rather than overtly biased (in favor of woo or accommodationism) scientists and theologians who will likely do flawed research. For the preferrable outcome to happen, I have to be willing to support unbiased rationalist scientists who compete for, win, and use such grant monies.

      Any such ‘secular’ winner does has to worry somewhat about the corrupting power of the money. Funding source can unconsciously bias results. But even with that concern, its IMO better that the money go to a solid research proposal run by a reasonably objective investigator – rather than a poor proposal run by someone with a clear dog in the fight.

  7. Another criticism of the Nobels is that they are strictly limited (yes there has been some leeway) to the three scientific diciplines of Med/Physiolgy, physics and chem. This means that some scientists who have worked on some (and the example I am thinking of is literally so) earth-shattering discoveries that are fundamental to the way we now think are hardly recognised by the non-specialist.

    The example? Frederick Vine’s, Drummond
    Matthews’s and Lawrence Morley’s work on plate techtonics.

  8. To be fair, the Immobile Prize was “designed” specifically for group achievement and was given to the Discovery Institute for their collective discoveries.

  9. I got 2 out of 3 (I also thought CERN would be awarded)! =D

    As for Carroll’s criticism, as well as many others, it is history-less what I understand. And most critics take the prize to seriously, obsessing over details.

    *This is not a living prize* in the sense that *it is instituted by a will* with some very specific (rather odd) notions of how science works. I understand changes have, and can, be made, but the process is likely not entirely free (or there would be no wills).

    I’m riffing off what I remember, and some have been proved wrong, so here goes with errors: Nobel was a late student (poor upbringing) and determined inventor with a strong belief in progress. So originally discoveries were premiered above theoretical progress, and they are still controlling. Hence Englert and Higgs couldn’t get the prize until the discovery.

    IIRC the prize has been mostly criticized for *not* awarding theoreticians as it should.

    But honestly, the prize has been criticized for everything between the CMB horizon and Earth. What I don’t get is why people aren’t just accepting of a freely given award.

    Though my gripes with the tedious yearly griping are not relevant either. Because same as science is a market, prizes is. If the prize is too noncompetitive, it will replaced with new ones. That process is already happening (Milner prizes and what not).

  10. To play devil’s advocate here, I’ll suggest that the real value of the award has more to do with how it effects the wider culture than the scientific one.

    The average person is not a scientist — and their direct understanding of how science works in general and scientific discoveries in particular usually runs from disappointing to abysmal. But “everybody” knows that the Nobel Prizes in science are “important.” They have prestige and they matter. They’re a big deal.

    I think that attitude rubs off on how a culture perceives the process itself. Science must be important, it must matter because there are distinguished awards for doing it.

    It’s completely backwards, yeah, I get that. But this is possibly a pragmatic issue. What do you think would happen — what sort of message would be given to the average person — if the Nobel Prizes were no longer given out for high-minded reasons, scientific reasons, ethical reasons? “That’s not what science is about — getting awards!” No more Nobels! How noble!

    I darkly suspect it would be translated into “science isn’t really important: that’s why we don’t even bother to give out awards for it any more.” Or perhaps “we already know what we need to know” and it looks like science is pretty much done (time to work on our faiths!)

    I’ve no arguments over the suggested improvements (they all sound fair and reasonable) but the fair and reasonable reasons for eliminating the Prizes completely would probably run aground on the unfairness and irrationality of society in general.

    1. I don’t know if you intended that to sound so cynical, but I think there are good non cynical reasons that giving awards to each other for putatively “great” achievements is a benefit to society as a whole. All those reasons do, of course, have to do with human nature, but I don’t think they are necessarily irrational or unfair.

      The process of deciding who gets awards can certainly be or become corrupt or dysfunctional. There are aspects of human nature that apply pressure in that direction.

      But there are also aspects of human nature that apply pressure in the opposite direction. And there are aspects of human nature that result in award giving inspiring people in many ways. It also engenders positive emotions in givers, receivers and spectators, provides a good example of positive behaviors, and more.

    2. I have been reading C.P. Snow’s famous essay, The Two Cultures, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, my favorite population genetecist. Neither of these scholars won a Nobel, and both influenced many productive others, Snow in the History of Intellectual Thought and Dobzhansky by both his scientific research and his very readable discussions of genetics and evolution. I understand the concerns expressed by Jerry Coyne and Sean Carroll. However, on first reading this blog, my initial response is that the prominence of the Nobel prizes for scientific research is that they publicize science. You will recall Snow’s criticism of the UK educational system for privileging Latin & Greek over scientific concepts and the history of science. He said that the U.S. and Germany were better at scientific education. (Snow was both a physicist and a novelist, so he straddled both humanities and science.)

  11. The Nobel prize also helps advance the public awareness of science, but I wonder why other science awards are so under publicized! In lit, folks know about both the Nobel and the Pulitzer (there are still many others). In movies, folks know about the Oscars and the Golden globes and BAFTAs. But the only widely publicized science prize is the Nobel although many others exist.

    Coincidentally, just this Sunday I saw the 1966 Broadway musical “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman” in which the villain is a research scientist who is embittered for having been turned down for a Nobel multiple times after close work with the winners.

    1. Not really. He also specified: one person per prize, for work done during the previous year. Both have been changed. Also, he didn’t explicitly exclude posthumous awards.

  12. Nobels are, for better or for worse, often regarded as *the* achievement in a scientist’s career. But they are weird, for all the reasons discussed. I dare say we should work to correct them. More prizes would be nice!

  13. Just chiming in to note that my guess — that Englert and Higgs would share the prize — was exactly right. The kvetching was merely in annoyance that other worthy contributors wouldn’t share the glory.

    1. Overlooked, but should be noticed: The Nobel Prize in medicine “will be shared by James Rothman, 62, of Yale University, Randy Schekman, 64, of the University of California-Berkeley, and Dr. Thomas Sudhof, 57, of Stanford University.

      They unlocked the mysteries of the cell’s internal transport system, which relies on bubble-like structures called vesicles to deliver substances the cell needs. … In the 1970s, Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle transport. Rothman revealed in the 1980s and ’90s how vesicles delivered their cargo to the right places. Also in the ’90s, Sudhof identified the machinery that controls when vesicles release chemical messengers from one brain cell that let it communicate with another. …” This is marvelous genetics research – good for them being so persistent and dedicated.

  14. Svante Pääbo has been tipped for the Chemistry prize – saw him give a talk at the Royal Institution a few weeks ago – he IS an experimentalist! (DNA)

  15. As far as I know, what CERN discovered is a particle compatible with the Higgs’.
    And this happened one year ago. Did it ever happen, a very reactive Nobel prize?
    The inventor of CCD waited decades if I’m not wrong.
    Isn’t it a bit too fast?

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