On Tuesday, Peter Higgs, of the United Kingdom, and François Englert, of Belgium, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for theorizing how particles obtain mass in separate papers published in 1964.
Englert, 80, and his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011, were actually first to describe the invisible field, now known as the Higgs field, that pervades all of space and slows particles down, in turn, giving them mass.
Higgs’ paper came along several weeks later, although it was the first to predict the existence of a new particle that exists within the invisible field. This became known as the Higgs boson.
Three other theoretical physicists — Carl Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble — also published a paper in 1964 about how some elementary particles get their mass. All three are still alive, and therefore eligible for the Nobel, but none of them were recognised for their work.
The Royal Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel Prize winners, says that a maximum of three living people can split the prize. No exceptions. It would be impossible to recognise Hagen, Guralnik, and Kibble without bending the rules.
“The Nobel Prize committee is very strict that it just goes by order of publication,” said Paul Padley, a physicist at Rice University who has been involved with experiments to discover the Higgs boson.”They [Englert and Higgs] published the first papers on this Higgs mechanism. There are other people who contributed theoretically, but they were a bit later.”
Hagen, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, wishes the committee had strayed from the rulebook in this case.
“The Swedes have their rules, but it was proposed to have a wider set of rules,”Hagen told Democrat & Chronicle.”I would have hoped that they would’ve found in their heart of hearts to include all five of us.”
Kibble seemed equally disappointed. He told Reuters: “Our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published in Physical Review Letters in 1964 — though we naturally regard our treatment as the most thorough and complete.”
And Guralni? The professor at Brown University, said to The Washington Post that “it stings a little,” but also views Englert and Higgs’ recognition as “a great day for science.”
There were thousands of scientists involved in the actual discovery of the Higg boson at CERN last year, a monumental achievement that confirmed the theories presented in 1964. But again, the Nobel’s committee strict limit of three makes it difficult to recognise those on the experimental side.
“I don’t know how they could ever award a Nobel Prize for the experimental work,” said Padley. “The experiments are worthy of the Nobel Prize, but the current rules of the Nobel Prize committee are that they only give it to up to three individuals, and we’re a lot more than three individuals.”