Nobel for Englert and Higgs

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.

-C.R. Hagen

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74 Responses to Nobel for Englert and Higgs

  1. Bernhard says:


    I understand and sympathize with your concern, since if they were to distribute 6000 little Nobel medals, the seriousness and prestige of the Nobel would pretty much evaporate.

    However, I think that is not the idea behind awarding an organization, no more than it was not the idea to distribute the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize among all EU citizens. The idea is to simply to acknowledge the achievement of the institution, which only exists when all its members are taken together and makes no sense otherwise. It is not like saying that each member of ATLAS or CMS would each win 1/6000 of the Nobel.

    About what each people do in a collaboration, that´s tricky. Even people searching for SUSY, in many cases, contributed crucially to this discovery. All members of ATLAS and CMS have “detector duties”, without which the Higgs discovery would have been impossible. I don´t think the data analysis is the hardest part – it´s one part, an important part, but if all other duties are not taken just as seriously just forget about doing the histograms.

    About spokespersons I am as you, fiercely opposed to the idea of awarding them, but indeed, I would have no problem with them going to Stockholm for the ceremony, for the sole reason that at some point a human being needs to pick up the prize in the name of the organization . It is (at least to me) a very, very different thing however, if the Nobel diploma writes down the name of the spokesperson or of the organization.

    The cash is unimportant in this case – 8 million SEK could be used to finance a dinner among the collaboration members (perhaps not in Geneva, not sure would be enough there).

  2. Terry says:

    The Nobel “history” is really quite nasty and just wrong…this view is from some famous physics folks you would never think would complain. Frankly many lies in this “history” giving credit to BE and H papers – it even claims that EB and Higgs had the same potential. Show me the potential in the papers!

    Downplays everyone but BEH – especially Anderson and GHK.
    For GHK they are particularly careful to ensure there work is downplayed. (It is as if ULB wrote it)
    *Puts GHK in “other contributions” and uses several techniques to downplay the contribution
    *Positions GHK in this “history” after some Soviet paper which came out in 1967
    *States how the Soviet paper was clearly independent (but does not say that for GHK, basically implies it was not independent)
    *For GHK each sentence was structured to downplay their paper
    *Gives dates to show GHK was after others
    *States it was the same model as BEH
    *GHK citations of BEH was noted (does not mention that H referenced BE)
    *States GHK explains detail of Goldstone avoidance but conclusions were “essentially the same”
    *Never returns to the GHK paper throughout the document

    The academy must have really felt the need to downplay Anderson and GHK. This paper was carefully constructed to really hammer the others and manipulate thinking with lies and half-truths.

    Would be great to know who the “primary author” was for this “revised history”

  3. papers says:

    The Physical Review is making the BE and H papers publicly (free) available for download. Only BE and H not GHK. Read them and look up the potentials and anything else you like.

  4. young experimentalist says:

    sure this was before my time, but didn’t rubia get the nobel prize for the UA1 discoveries? were times that much different back then, that there was a “great man”?

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    young expermentalist,

    Yes indeed, but as the politicians are less willing now than then to fund HEP research, any CERN director needs to be even greater now. The problem with the whole area is that measuring progress and achievement is much harder than, say, most industrial or medical research. In the first case it can be measured by the company making more money and in the second by people being more healthy. In HEP the whole world relies on a handful of experts to inform them, who, not wanting to put themselves on the line, then further delegate the task to the Nobel committee. I would not like to be one of them.

  6. Bernhard says:

    young expermentalist,

    I believe that one of the things that have changed is how close the alleged leader is close to the physics analyses. In the case of Rubbia or even Lederman in 1988, they were very close and active to the scientific results. I believe however, that even in their case, it would have made sense to give the prize to the collaborations, but indeed their leadership was very important. I, for example, don’t swallow at all what Lederman wrote about his own deserved credit in the neutrino experiment in “The God Particle”, but if I were to, than he deserved the prize.

    The closest thing we have today regarding the roles Rubbia and Lederman had are , to some extent, the group conveners, but they change with the wind and would be very strange to just award one of them. Furthermore, the most difficult thing in the case of the LHC experiments, IMO, was the detector design – after that, the methods that were used to discover the Higgs were known. It did not need any epiphany from nobody in particular to see it.

    All in all I think the Nobel policy of giving group leaders too much credit has been damaging. Take for example the pion discovery. It is undisputed that Cesare Lattes was the the main researcher (and by the way he first author of the Nature article) regarding the pion discovery, but it was actually Cecil Powell, the group leader, who got it. This was not a good idea then and it should not be a good idea today either, specially when the role of the spokesperson has detached itself even further from the analyses.

  7. Terry says:

    They three (BE, H, GHK) are all available from the PRL milestones paper site.

  8. piscator says:

    Young experimentalist:

    Read ‘Nobel Dreams’ by Gary Taubes. Beg, borrow or steal a copy (it is out of print now). But if you are a HEP experimenter, and you want to read about a great experimental discovery together with lots of juicy stories about how those collaborations worked….

  9. greatmen says:

    Carlo Rubbia was very much a (or the) driving force to push (persuade?) CERN to implement stochastic cooling and convert CERN’s existing SPS Super Proton Synchrotron, which was a fixed target machine, into a p-pbar collider, which would have the energy reach to produce the W and Z bosons. And Rubbia headed the UA1 collaboration to build the required detector. (Note that there was also a UA2 collaboration.) So Rubbia was much more than simply a group convener. Lederman won jointly with Steinberger and Schwartz, and note that the experiment was at Brookhaven Lab in 1962 (not Fermilab), a fixed target experiment using the AGS synchrotron. The collaboration size was much smaller, and the leaders formulated the basic idea of the expt, designed the apparatus, analyzed data, etc. ~ much more than simply being a group convener. In fact Sam Ting’s collaboration (the J of J/psi) was about the same size, and indeed Ting won (joint with Richter) ~ not his entire staff. (The collaboration size was maybe six people?)

    Nevertheless, the notion of awarding the Nobel Prize only to the team leader is controversial and questionable and not a good idea.

  10. Marco Masi says:

    Marty, there is nor reason (apart from tradition) why the Nobel prize must necessarily recognize only the individual achievement, especially when everyone knows that it wasn’t. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF – “Doctors Without Borders”) received the Nobel peace prize as an organization in itself, but no one began to believe that every individual working at MSF is a Nobel laureate. I think it is a false problem, and don’t see why that can not be applied in physics too.

  11. orgs says:

    To date, only the Peace Prize has been awarded to organizations. Also, the limitation to not more than three individuals is an arbitrary rule, made by some committee in the early days of the prizes. Actually, Alfred Nobel’s will had in mind only one person per prize. So be grateful that the current limit is at least three, not one.

  12. Tom says:

    An essay by Sean Carroll a couple days ago, criticising the Nobel practice of restricting prizes to maximum of 3 people:
    “No Physicist Is an Island”

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Looking at Nobel’s will on the Nobel website, it states that the prizes are for

    “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

    then going on to specify that the benefit to mankind he had in mind was a discovery in physics, chemistry or medicine, or a work of literature, or peace-making. From this, the ATLAS/CMS collaborations would fit precisely the terms of the physics prize, since they had the most important discovery in physics in 2012. Englert and Higgs don’t fit at all, since their work was not last year, but 48 years ago, something completely different than what Nobel had in mind.

    It is in the later specifications that “person” in the singular is used. This was violated long ago by the decision to allow prizes for three people in the scientific fields, and organizations in the peace prize. I don’t see how allowing a prize for a collaboration of scientists is any more a violation of Nobel’s intent than the current rules. So, arguments that it is Nobel’s will that is the problem here just don’t hold water.

    The problem with not allowing prizes to collaborations is that it rules out many parts of experimental science, only allowing prizes when experimental collaborations are organized by having an identifiable “leader” (or, up to three of them). Having a system where large parts of the experimental side of science become ineligble for the prize I doubt is what Nobel intended. There’s also no reason to believe that he felt that experiments needed to have a “leader” who would be the one to get prize recognition. On the whole, arguments against giving prizes to collaborations seem to be coming from theorists, who, since they work alone or in small collaborations, have obvious reasons to prefer a system where their form of organization is the one to be rewarded.

  14. Gog the Mild says:

    Apologies if this has already been mentioned, but apparently Professor Higgs learnt about his award from a neighbour in the street. BBC – . This also has some quotes regarding his take on allocating credit for the theory.

  15. will says:

    There are many ways one can read Nobel’s will. That’s how lawyers make their money after all … Thomas Edison probably conferred more benefit on mankind than any winner of the physics prize, yet Edison never won (and quite likely was never nominated). The invention of the incandescent lamp (aka “light bulb”), the phonograph, electric utility company (was it in Menlo Park? I think his lab was there), many other things. Steve Jobs also conferred great benefit on mankind and also deserved to win, and most likely Jobs was also never nominated.

    Fritz Haber did win, for chemistry, for his invention of the Haber process (today the Bosch-Haber process) to fix nitrogen from the air to make ammonia. It is an important industrial process for the chemical (or fertilizer) industry. It also enabled Germany to fight WW1 (because the British had blockaded supplies of saltpeter from Chile). Was Haber’s work a benefit to mankind? I believe Haber won a Kaiser Wilhelm Medal for his services to the German war effort (and he was shocked when he was later dismissed from his professorship because he was a Jew). But the Bosch-Haber process is to this day an important industrial process.

    I think no one would argue that awarding the Nobel Prizes (in the sciences) to collaborations violates the spirit of Nobel’s will. Also the restriction to three individuals.

    Basically, it boils down to the concept of how science was practiced in Nobel’s day. The rules were formulated within the paradigm of how scientists practised research in those days. Who would have dreamed in those days that physics experiments would take years to plan and build and cost billions and require teams of thousands? And who knows how science will be practiced a hundred years from now? I can easily imagine that significant contributions will be made by robots or suchlike, and there will be debates as to whether the prizes should be awarded to robots. A robot might even make the critical discovery, in some team. Who can say?

  16. Marty says:

    Bernhard and Marco,

    Thank you for your perspectives. Both of you seem to take the Nobel Peace prize as a precedent for awarding a prize to group. Maybe that is a reasonable model for rewarding collaborations. It would certainly be desirable and appropriate to somehow recognize the significant achievement of the detector teams in finding the Higgs, beyond an “honorable mention” in a paper by the committee that discusses this year’s award.

    However, it still seems that awarding the physics prize to Atlas+CMS would require a significant departure in thinking about what a Nobel in science signifies. I interpret Peter’s helpful quote from Nobel’s will, “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” (ignoring the “preceding year” part), as an intent to reward the person (now “no more than three people”) who made the discovery, i.e., a collection of identifiable individuals. But this interpretation doesn’t seem to match my understanding of what Bernhard was thinking, which was that one should think of the collaborations as abstract institutions that made the key discovery rather than a set of individuals each of whom individually deserves 1/6000 of the prize.

    The peace prize is qualitatively different from the science prizes, which I think should be assessed before using it as a model for rewarding a scientific collaboration. For example, peace itself is an idea rather than an objective condition (a police state may look outwardly “peaceful” even though its citizens may live in constant fear), and the best way to achieve it is very subjective (e.g., “peace through strength” versus peace through respect and accommodation versus …) and hence intrinsically political. Scientific discoveries, however, must be very concrete to earn a Nobel. I would have thought that rewarding an organization for promoting peace also makes sense when that organization is a group of highly motivated individuals working toward a common goal (and often at significant personal risk), but it’s hard to see how the award to the EU is consistent with that viewpoint, given that (in my understanding) many EU citizens strongly dislike the institution…

    One way to continuing the tradition of awarding Nobel prizes in science to individuals, while also accommodating the growing importance of large collaborations in bringing about significant scientific discoveries, is to create a new prize (not necessarily awarded annually) for that purpose. Such a prize could be for all of the sciences where Nobels are currently awarded so that, say, physics could get it one year, medicine another year, etc. Not that anyone is likely to care that I think this could be a good idea…

  17. Marty says:

    Oops, a bit of vagueness slipped into my last paragraph. The “new prize” I was suggesting would be specifically for rewarding scientific collaborations.

  18. Shantanu says:

    Btw, first time I checked publication list of Higgs on inspire and didn’t know that in 60’s and 50’s he also worked on GR and canonical formulation (or something like what people working on LQG do nowadays). Didn’t see this mentioned in any news articles.

  19. Uninvolved Swede says:

    According to Swedish media the delay was caused by internal debate on whether to also reward CERN, which they decided not to since organizations are not eligible according to current Nobel Foundation by-law. Though, I suspect they will change that relatively soon. The speculation in the comments here about European bias is rather silly, if there is any at all (which I highly doubt) I suspect there would be just as much anti-European sentiment as anti-American here in Sweden. (Despite efforts by the EU most people here still think of themselves as Swedes or Scandinavians rather than Europeans.)

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Uninvolved Swede,

    Thanks. The conjecture of a possible award to CERN as the third winner makes a lot of sense. It would explain why the detailed history has so much about CERN and the LHC experiments, why a third place was left open when it could have been given to Anderson, why there was lengthy discussion that morning making a delayed announcement necessary, and why there is explicit mention of the experiments in the citation.

  21. Peter says:

    A quote in the APS News (Oct. 2013) article about the demise of SSC 20 years ago.

    – Among the most vocal detractors was Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson, a condensed matter physicists who bemoaned “the almost irrelevance of the results of particle physics not only to real life but to the rest of science.”

  22. aps news says:

    To put a more positive spin on things, read the poem in APS News bottom p4

  23. Bernhard says:

    Joao Magueijos (Imperial College) has a rather aggressive anti-Nobel opinion.

    The article is in Portuguese, but worth reading it with google translate (not too bad):

    I translated two paragraphs here:

    “Nobody likes to be accused of being a bad loser, but sometimes true courage lies in having the courage to criticize when you lost. The Nobel Prize has long since lost touch with reality, specifically in physics. Science is an increasingly collaborative and collective effort, even in the theoretical areas. Where the contribution of each one begins and ends is becoming increasingly less obvious.”


    “One conclusion we can draw from all this: the Nobel Prize, with its anachronistic rules, is unable to represent fairly the nuances and historical details of any scientific discovery. What happened to my colleague (Kibble) is a tremendous injustice, and worse it will be when the prize is awarded to the scientists at CERN , where the Higgs particle was detected. Thousands of people from over 100 countries contribute, but then only the leaders will receive recognition, as it is tradition in these cases. As a rule, these leaders are more politicians than scientists. There are even those who say they are the worst representatives of these huge groups, invoking the quote “shit rises to the top”. If the Nobel Foundation did a raffle between the doctoral students, there would be more integrity.”

  24. shinosuke says:

    With all due respect to Phil Anderson, to whom my discipline, Condensed Matter Physics, owns a great deal (and I certainly believe that he deserves more than one Swedish prize), I find a strange kind of “symmetry” with Anderson failing to get the 2013 Nobel together with Higgs and Brout and the case of Jaques Friedel in 1977.

    Indeed, that year Anderson got the Nobel together with van Vleck and Mott “for their fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems”. In Anderson’s case, besides his famous work on localization in disordered semiconductors, the mention is also for another of his important contributions, namely the “Anderson model”. The latter describes the behavior of a magnetic impurity in a metallic host. The model was mathematically described and solved (within a mean-field approximation) by Anderson in Phys. Rev. 124, 41–53 (1961).

    It might be not known to many in the HEP community, but the mechanism that the model captures had been described much earlier (with words, but in detail) by Jaques Friedel in Can. J. Phys 34, p. 1190 (1956). It is hard to believe that Anderson was not aware of Friedel’s work since, at the time, the number of Physicists working on Solid State problems was rather small and they met regularly. But to his own merit, Anderson was the first to formulate these ideas mathematically, thus lying the foundations of fields such like the so-called Kondo problem, Heavy fermion materials, and other strongly correlated electron phenomena. Of course, it would have been nice to have seen the Nobel committee change the rules back in 1977 and expand the number of winners from three to four or even more… but where is the limit?

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