Physics Nobel Prize 2012

I had decided to retire from the Nobel Prize prediction business at the top of my game after my first prediction soon after this blog was started. I haven’t heard anything about what tomorrow’s announcement will be, but did just notice something that gave me pause, this quote in a Cosmos magazine article:

“There’s nothing stopping us from giving the prize to an organisation. But it has not been the custom in the scientific prizes,” said Lars Bergstroem, secretary of the committee for the Nobel physics prize.

“The Nobel Peace Prize has often been awarded to organisations. But in the science prizes we have tried to find the most prize-worthy individuals.”

If there really is nothing but custom to keep them from awarding the Nobel this year to ATLAS, CMS, and CERN for the Higgs, I can’t see a better occasion to break with the custom, and they’ve had a long time to decide whether or not to do this. So, here’s a (probably wrong…) prediction for tomorrow: ATLAS, CMS and CERN as Nobelists.

: As predicted, that prediction was wrong: the prize went to Haroche and Wineland for work manipulating individual quantum states. Maybe next year for the Higgs…

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33 Responses to Physics Nobel Prize 2012

  1. Garrett says:

    No way — too impersonal.

  2. no clue says:

    It’s too soon to give a prize for the Higgs. But we’ll find out soon enough. I’m willing to make a prediction it won’t be Anderson, though.

  3. David Derbes says:

    I think Higgs, Englert and a surprise. Woulda been Higgs, Englert and Brout had Brout not died. Might be Anderson, might be out of left field, might just be the two of ’em. Could be Tom Kibble, I guess.

    If the Nobel folks wait till next year, and both Higgs and Englert die before October 2013, it will not reflect well on the committee and hence on the Prize. I’d be happy to see the ATLAS and CMS teams honored, but let’s give the old guys their long-awaited prizes while we can, i.e. while they’re still breathing. (I’m not impartial about this; Peter Higgs was my thesis supervisor.) I don’t think it’s too soon; you have evidence from three experiments (including Fermilab) and the damned thing was postulated nearly half a century ago. On the contrary, it may soon be too late.

  4. Bob Levine says:

    @David Derbes

    Good point! But Peter’s point about the merits of awarding the LHC teams the prize seems persuasive as well. Why can’t we have it both ways? The practice behind the Nobel group prizes, in the case of the Peace Prize, shows that such groups constitute a single (corporate) individual for prize purposes. So two individuals plus one group, or one individual plus two groups, should—going by the statement from the Nobel committee spokesman that Peter cited—have the same legitimacy as a Nobel award as giving the prize to three individuals, which they’ve certainly done in the past.

    So Higgs, Brout (or Higgs/Anderson or… ) and the collective LHC experimental team would be a legitimate triple under this investigation. That would answer Garrett L.’s objection, and more importantly, would recognize that this extraordinary discovery has been a collaboration between brilliantly gifted individual theorists and spectacularly skilled experimental teams. It’s time that the Nobel committee acknowledged, in their prize-awarding, that it’s the irreducible collaboration between both sides of the line that leads to the great breakthroughs in the modern phase of HEP research….

  5. ckm says:

    Many Nobel Prizes are controversial (and I refer to physics, not peace). Consider the award to Kobayashi and Maskawa for the CKM matrix, omitting Cabibbo, who was still alive at the time. (The third recipient was Nambu.) That certainly reflected poorly on the committee. So `reflecting poorly’ doesn’t dictate the committee’s decisions.

  6. Avattoir says:

    The quotes in the Cosmos piece include some obviously wrong (Brout’s disqualified as dead.), and some just cryptic. But I’d put at least even money that our host is wrong on it being split among the three orgs. No way the committee awards for finding the Higgs without at least also honoring it’s namesake. Two, more likely one org at most.

    Since it’s still “Higgs-like” at this point, why not give all 6 surviving predictors a “Nobel-like” prize?

    Walter Haig’s famous comment might pertain here: asked by a reporter why he was still partying it late night before the last day of an Open championship when the leader had gone off to sleep hours previously, Haig said: He may be in bed, but he ain’t sleeping. It’s just after 3 a.m. in Scotland right now; wonder if Peter Higgs is sleeping.

  7. Thomas Larsson says:

    I saw somewhere that only discoveries made before Dec. 31, 2011, can be awarded the prize. Higgs and Englert of course fulfil this criterion, but the experimental discovery does not. We will see.

    According to the same reference, a NEW frequenter could be a hot candidate. (Hint: his first name is Peter and his last name consists of four letters).

  8. th-expt says:

    There will be separate prizes for Higgs theory and experiment. This has happened before. Glashow, Weinberg and Salam won for the electroweak theory in 1979, Rubbia and van der Meer won in 1984 for actually producing and detecting the W and Z. Lamb and Kusch won in 1955 for the Lamb shift and electron anomalous magnetic moment (expt), Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga won 10 years later in 1965 for renormalization of QED (theory). I believe Nobel prizes were awarded for experimental work on the photoelectric effect (not sure about this), Einstein won in 1922 for his theoretical explanation. Wien won for his expt work on blackbody radiation, Planck won for his theory of blackbody radiation.

  9. Grad student says:

    My money is on Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger for entanglement. I think particle physics will need to wait a bit.

  10. AJK says:

    I vote for separate prizes for experiment and theory. The question is, how embarrassed would we be if Higgs (and others?) won the prize, and the particle turned out to not be SM Higgs, but some variant. How far off would make the prize seem, in retrospect, like a bad idea?

    If what we’ve seen already is enough, sure, give it out, Higgs has waited long enough. We just need to acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily a prize predicated specifically on the discovery of the Higgs, just one that acknowledges the colossal influence on particle physics that Higgs et al. have had, and that this has led to an important discovery which may or may not be SM Higgs.

  11. egan says:

    @grad student

    I’m with you on this prediction. Aspect, Clauser and Zeilinger shared the Wolf prize in 2010 and it’s often a hint of future Nobel prizes.

  12. BEC says:

    How about we remember that experiemental verification and demonstrated benefit are also part of the criteria. So far they have “Higgs like” particles. Perhaps it might be the year for an experimentally reproduced, novel discovery like that made by Lene Vestergaard Hau and team at Harvard. Stopping light in Bose-Einstein Condensates, turning it into matter, placing information on the copy, storing it, and re-converting it into light are all verified. The applications for quantum computing systems of the future are staggering.

  13. Colin Rosenthal says:

    I’m slightly amazed that Vera Rubin has never received a Nobel.

  14. David Nataf says:


    Have you described your rationale somewhere for why the Higgs nobel prize should go the experimental groups that measured the Higgs, rather than the theorists who both postulated the Higgs, and computed how it could in principle be measured?

  15. David Nataf says:

    Colin Rosenthal,

    The gravitational effects of dark matter were first inferred in 1933 by astronomer Fritz Zwicky, an eccentric figure who got a lot of things are right but was not as well respected (in his time) as his accomplishments would suggest.

    That might be why dark matter has not received a nobel prize. It could also be that the nobel prize committee isn’t convinced dark matter is real, they may think modified gravity is still plausible and are awaiting experimental confirmation from “direct detection” experiments.

  16. MathPhys says:

    Minutes to go and I put my money on “Higgs related”, with CERN as part of it as well.

  17. jon says:

    Just out: Serge Haroche and David Wineland, quantum optics…

  18. MathPhys says:

    Well, there is an element of lack of imagination here on part of the Nobel committee.

  19. fuzzy says:

    yes i also vote for a prize to the final proof of that model that was proven to be wrong by neutrino oscillations.

  20. Guy says:

    Oh My God Particle…you weren’t chosen this year!

  21. no clue says:

    It’s just a mistake to think that HEP is all of physics. There’s a lot more going on in physics. So what if there was a big announcement at ICHEP in July? The Higgs particle has just barely been discovered, basic checks that it is the SM Higgs still need to be quantified. If the theorists are old, that’s too bad.

  22. Tmark48 says:

    @ no clue : you can say that aloud that HEP is not all of physics.
    I’m happy that the Nobel prize went to people working in quantum optics. It’s kind of sad that most mainstream expositions of “physics” are all about HEP, Strings and other highly controversial (as in not connected to experimental evidence) subjects.
    I’m sure that the HIGGS discovery will be rewarded, it’s too big of a deal not to but it will have to wait for a full review on the properties of these so called HIGGS-like particles. We still don’t know if what was discovered was a SM HIGGS at all. So good for the Nobel Committee not bowing down to hype.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    David Nataf,

    The argument for priority of an experimental Higgs award over a theory one is mainly that the relevant theory one has already been given (to Weinberg/Salam for electroweak unification using Yang-Mills + Higgs mechanism). It’s the Weinberg-Salam Lagrangian, extended to include quarks and QCD that determines the behavior of the predicted SM Higgs. There has been a lot of discussion about exactly who among the people who worked on the “Higgs mechanism” back in 1963-4 deserves a Nobel for it, but that work was on Abelian models pretty far from what is being seen now at the LHC (if it really is a a Higgs…).

    All in all, I think HEP theorists have a very high profile and get more attention than they deserve. In this case the huge recent development is the discovery of a new particle by the LHC experimentalists, in a technical tour de force. That deserves a Nobel if anything in HEP does. Maybe it is too recent, so needs to wait a year to satisfy the Nobel rules about that. Maybe the lack of specific people to give the prize to is an impediment that can’t be overcome.

    In any case, the actual award is an interesting sign of the times, with attention in physics moving from HEP to techniques for manipulating quantum systems at a fundamental level.

  24. Phil says:

    Leaving GHK off will be controvery enough in 2013. Politically too many people in Europe are pushing for Englert and CERN to now snub them. If they can award it to CERN they can modify the statutes to ensure all the theorists get recognized as well. 1964 PRL paper quality (GHK) should be considered at least as much as submission dates (Englert) and boson naming (Higgs).

  25. El-Coco says:

    Every year Guth doesn’t win the prize moves ever closer to being absolutely meaningless.

  26. Tmark48 says:

    @ El-Coco : didn’t Alan Guth just win Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize ?
    I’d say we was rewarded handsomely for his theoretical breakthrough.

  27. Zathras says:


    Nobel Prizes are almost always given for ideas that have both strong experimental evidence and a firm foundation in theory. Inflation certainly has the experimental evidence, but there is not enough of a firm theoretical underpinning of inflation for it to qualify.

  28. no clue says:

    I have a question to the assembled company: has the recently found particle at 125 GeV been verified to have spin zero?

  29. Peter Woit says:

    no clue,

    It must have even spin, has not yet been shown to have spin zero. Showing this is one target of ongoing analyses. No one really believes though that there is much likelihood it is spin two or higher.

  30. Pravda says:

    “If there really is nothing but custom to keep them from awarding the Nobel this year to ATLAS, CMS, and CERN for the Higgs, I can’t see a better occasion to break with the custom…”

    What could be more inspirational than such an award going to huge corporate entities composed of many thousands of people, and which spent billions of dollars?


  31. unpravda says:

    That makes no sense at all. The billions are well spent, not squandered. It makes far less sense to award the prize to spokespersons/project leaders. Those positions may even rotate … why are only the spokespersons deserving of Nobels?

    But I was surprised by the statement. At at least for science there is a custom to award the prize to individuals, not organizations. It is only the peace prize, I believe, where awards have been made to entities such as the International Red Cross etc. Actually the will of Alfred Nobel stipulated only one individual for the awards.

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  33. Colin Rosenthal says:

    “It could also be that the nobel prize committee isn’t convinced dark matter is real, they may think modified gravity is still plausible and are awaiting experimental confirmation from “direct detection” experiments.”

    I’m not sure that that is particularly relevant. According to wikipedia, Rubin herself would prefer a modified-gravity explanation, but even if such a thing were possible it wouldn’t make Rubin’s observational analysis less important. “Sorry we can’t give you a nobel because you’ve only overthrown GR”??

    (The Zwicky question is a whole different thing. But I don’t think a prize for Rubin could possibly be _more_ controversial than some of the other strange choices and omissions over the years.)

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