Prospective Nobel Prize for Higgs boson work disputed

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Amid recent rumors and news on the progress to find the Higgs boson, a dispute has arisen as to who should get credit for the discovery and the resulting Nobel Prize in Physics.

2010 J.J. Sakurai Prize Winners - Kibble, Guralnik, Hagen, Englert, and Brout (Peter Higgs was not present)

Six people, across three different teams, are credited with this discovery: Robert Brout and François Englert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles; Peter Higgs of University of Edinburgh; and G. S. Guralnik at Brown University, C. R. Hagen of the University of Rochester, and Tom Kibble at Imperial College London.

Three papers written in 1964 explained what is now known as the "Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble mechanism" (or Higgs mechanism and Higgs boson for short). The mechanism is the key element of the electroweak theory that forms part of the Standard model of particle physics. The papers that introduce this mechanism were published in Physical Review Letters in 1964 and were each recognized as milestone papers by PRL’s 50th anniversary celebration.

"There are six people who developed the mechanism in quick succession and who hold a legitimate claim to credit for it," says particle physicist Frank Close at the University of Oxford, UK. Because the Swedish Royal Academy of Science can award Nobel prizes to no more than three people, this puts six men aiming for half as many Nobel medals, should the particle be found. The Nobel committee can award the prize to groups and associations.

Fermilab's Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN are searching for a particle that will constitute evidence for this significant discovery. Recent progress has given a new urgency not only to the race to find the particle, but also to establishing authorship of the ideas behind it. As John Ellis, a particle physicist based at CERN, acknowledges: "Let's face it, a Nobel Prize is at stake."

The issue over credit and authorship was highlighted late July in France when the American and British team of Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble were omitted from the conference overview web site. Several groups threatened to boycott and raised the issue in discussions of the theory behind the on-going search for the particle. One of the meeting's organizers, Gregorio Bernardi at the Laboratory of Nuclear and High Energy Physics in Paris, admits that the committee was surprised by the strength of objections leveled at the web advertisement and the committee. "People took this very seriously, which we didn't expect," he says.

Physicist Tom Ferbel said the snub by the French conference organizers was "insulting" and "chilling", noting that the American Physical Society awarded the 2010 J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics to all six physicists for this theory. "I do fear," he said, "that the myopic views of the organizers could definitely impact the decisions of the Swedish Academy."

The conference organizers acknowledged that their choice was controversial by inviting a special talk on the tangled history of the mechanism, providing a forum for disgruntled conference participants to debate the matter. However, although the meeting ultimately ran smoothly, it seems likely that arguments over this issue will become more heated now that the Higgs particle is perceived to be within reach. As John Ellis states, "I'm just glad that I'm not on the Nobel committee deciding who to throw out of the lifeboat."