Congratulations to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, awarded the 2013 physics Nobel prize this morning. Evidently the prize announcement was delayed because they were unable to reach Higgs by phone. Surely he wasn’t unaware that today was a day he might be getting an early morning phone call…
The Higgs discovery last year was one of the great milestones of fundamental physics research and it would have been very odd for the
Nobel committee Swedish Academy of Sciences to not recognize it with a prize this year. I do think though that the way they chose to do this is not ideal, for a couple reasons.
The first is that this was foremost an experimental achievement, but the experimentalists and their work remains unrecognized. The thousands of physicists and engineers of CERN, LHC and ATLAS have accomplished something amazing by working together, but this makes them somehow ineligible for the Nobel. As far as the Nobel goes they make the mistake of running their collaborations relatively democratically, without a “great man” (or “great woman”) who could stand out and be awarded a prize.
Another issue with today’s choice is that if you do want to emphasize a model of scientific research where advances come from a specific “great man” theorist, in this case they’ve left out the greatest one involved. The specific model tested at the LHC was not that of Englert and Higgs, but the one that Weinberg and Salam already got a prize for. The new prize is for the general mechanism, but this is something that was first understood by Philip Anderson a couple years before Englert and Higgs. For some details of the history, see here. The argument is often made that Anderson’s model was not relativistic, but this is a phenomenon for which relativity is not relevant, something which Anderson understood.
The Nobel prize announcement comes with a detailed discussion of the history, which discusses extensively Anderson’s work. It makes the argument that relativity was a crucial issue, and summarizes the situation with:
This was a very important step forward showing that one could indeed have massive vector particles without having a massless mode, but it did now show how the same phenomenon would work in a relativistically invariant theory. Anderson concluded by saying “We conclude then, that the Goldstone zero-mass difficulty is not a serious one, because we can probably cancel it off against an equal Yang-Mills zero-mass problem.”
Weirdly, this paragraphs contains a crucial typo. I assume they meant to write “it did not show” instead of “it did now show”.
The authors refer to what is usually called the “Higgs mechanism” as the “BEH Mechanism”, but it seems to me that if you want to insist on adding more names to the usual terminology, “Anderson-Higgs” would be better.
As far as the Nobel goes, Anderson already has one, given for other work, and maybe this is one reason he was left out this time (although getting multiple Nobel prizes is not unprecedented). Congratulations to him and the LHC experimentalists today, as well as to Englert and Higgs.
Update: Jon Butterworth has some similar comments at the Guardian, especially about the “lone genius” model for progress in science.
Update: For more from Anderson about his work on this topic, see interviews by Chandra, Coleman and Sondhi at the AIP oral history site here. One of the things I find most surprising about this history is that Brout was in close contact with Anderson during this period, but does not refer to Anderson’s 1963 paper in the original Brout-Englert paper, or in later discussions of the history (see here). Here’s Anderson’s account:
during this period I was in fairly close contact with Bob Brout. Later on, one of the co-inventors of the Higgs mechanism is Brout with Francois Englert. Bob spent several summers with us down at Bell and I know that I talked many of these things over with him. So he was definitely one of my sources for knowledge about particle physics, along with John Ward to a much, much lesser extent. Therefore, when I was recently helping edit one of the accounts of the recent Nobel Prize and noticed that they ascribed the idea, they call it Higgs, Brout, Englert, which I’d never heard, I realized that actually Brout and Englert had a fairly considerable influence on the whole development(must have gotten their ideas from me). So I had thought that it just fell into a black hole and Higgs reinvented it and everybody called it the Higgs mechanism because of that, but in fact, it is in the linear chain of what eventually led to t’ Hooft and Veltman. So I was quite happy with that.
Update: John Preskill comments “The emphasis on finding a relativistic model may be misplaced, though. Anderson understood the mechanism well.”
Update: There’s an interesting story here about the final decision process and the delay in the announcement. Evidently the way things work is that the Nobel Committee (see here for members) proposes up to three candidates. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences meets at 9:30 am, debates the matter, makes a decision, with the announcement of the decision scheduled for 11:45 am. Earlier today though, something unusual happened, requiring delay by at least an hour (
maybe two, one source says the announcement was at 13:45 it was at 12:45). Supposedly Higgs was not reachable by phone, but that seems unlikely to have been the cause of the delay since it was known in advance that this would be the case. The press story quotes the academy’s permanent secretary as giving as reason “There were many people who had a lot to say”.
Unfortunately the rule is that deliberations are kept secret for 50 years, so I’ll be long gone before it is known what happened at this meeting today.
Update: It took two days, but the Swedes finally fixed their typo. Now Anderson “did not show how the same phenomenon would work in a relativistically invariant theory.”
Update: C. R. Hagen, the “H” in “GHK”, sent me the following commentary on the document about the prize put out by the Swedish Academy.
It is difficult to take seriously the document put forth by the Swedish Academy which purports to explain the basis for their Nobel award.
“Scientific Background on the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013
The BEH-Mechanism, Interactions with Short Range Forces and Scalar Particles”
Plainly and simply stated its unnamed author(s) does not understand the mechanism which they are attempting to explain to the physics and world communities. The report in dealing with the Brout-Englert paper reads “The Goldstone theorem holds in the sense that that Nambu-Goldstone mode is there but it gets absorbed into the third component of a massive vector field.”
This assessment clearly demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the mass generation and Goldstone avoidance mechanisms associated with spontaneous broken symmetry. In fact as shown by Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble (GHK) in 1964 the missing longitudinal mode of the vector meson comes from one of the two scalar particles in the model (the other being the so-called “God Particle” recently alleged to have been found at the LHC).
There is no way to explain this incredible blunder by the Swedish Academy. In their desire to marginalize the GHK paper they have failed to understand its real contribution and have certainly failed to comprehend that the Coulomb gauge analysis of that work makes totally credible and understandable the route whereby the expected Goldstone boson is eliminated from the physical sector.