The Scientific and Human Drama Behind the Higgs Nobel Prize

The state of the universe.
Oct. 8 2013 4:41 PM

Why the Higgs Is Such a Big Deal

But under no circumstances should you call it “the God particle.”

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A Complicated Prize

While a lot of us in the physics community were fairly certain that the prize was going to Higgs (the particle), it was less clear that it would be awarded to Higgs (the scientist), and if so, who his co-awardees might be. There’s a limit of only three to a prize, but in this case, there are a huge number of people who might rightly feel robbed.

While this isn’t meant to take anything away from Higgs and Englert, there were a lot of contemporaneous researchers who were working on something similar. Phil Anderson (who won the Nobel in 1977 for unrelated work) devised a Higgs-like approach to generating mass two years earlier than Higgs and Englert wrote their theories in 1964. There are at least four other contemporaneous theorists—Robert Brout (Englert’s co-author on the work), Carl Hagen, Gerry Guralnik, and Tom Kibble—who could make legitimate claim. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that researchers started referring to it as “the Higgs mechanism.”

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What’s more, historically prizes have generally gone to the discovery itself, or to a combination of discovery and prediction. For example, in 1964 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered, largely by accident, that the universe was filled with a low-level radiation—a remnant of the Big Bang. This radiation had been predicted for decades, but it was Penzias and Wilson, and not the theorists who proposed the idea of a background radiation (and definitely not the group led by Robert Dicke, who were scooped while actually trying to detect the background radiation), who won the 1978 Nobel Prize.

Similarly, many in the physics community had reasonable expectations that the Nobel committee would recognize the experimentalists who actually found the particle. This was no easy task. The Large Hadron Collider is a multibillion-dollar international collaboration involving literally thousands of scientists. It involves accelerating protons up to about 99.999996 percent of the speed of light, and it was motivated in no small part on finding the Higgs. While ATLAS and CMS, the two experiments that found the Higgs, more or less simultaneously, may get someday get recognized by the good folks in Sweden, that day is not today.

This is the problem, perhaps, with Big Science. It’s very easy to envision big prizes like the Nobel going to a lone genius or a small team. On the other hand, with giant experiments like the LHC increasingly contributing to groundbreaking science, it’s less clear how credit should be allocated.

What Doesn’t the Higgs Tell Us?

It is easy to overstate the importance of the Higgs discovery. Though the Higgs tells us a great deal about mass, it says absolutely nothing about how gravity works. As one of the fundamental forces of nature, gravity should work the same way as the other forces, with mediators and whatnot. And yet, every attempt to come up with a comprehensive theory of “quantum gravity,” as it’s known, has come up short.

And even with regard to mass, understanding the Higgs doesn’t tell us everything. The recipe of the universe seems to be about 68 percent mysterious “dark energy” that accelerates the expanding universe, about 25 percent incompletely understood “dark matter” that holds together galaxies, and only about 5 percent ordinary stuff—the kind that the Higgs gives mass to.

And even the mass of ordinary matter isn’t entirely explained by the Higgs. Ordinary stuff (e.g., you) is made of protons and neutrons, but those particles are made of even more fundamental particles called quarks. Quarks do, indeed, get their masses from the Higgs, but as it turns out, protons are much more than the sum of their parts; less than 2 percent of the mass of a proton comes directly from the mass of the quarks—and thus, the Higgs. Instead, the vast majority of your mass comes from the fact that everything inside your atomic nuclei is flying around at nearly the speed of light.

The Higgs is important, but when reporters write about it as “the God particle,” they’re overstating the case. The Nobel laureate Leon Lederman coined the term in large part to sell more books, but physicists themselves don’t generally use it at all, except to complain about it as an appellation. And honestly, calling something “the God particle” makes you sound like a mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes who worships an unexploded nuclear bomb.

There is a better option. Now that the Nobel committee has given its imprimatur, perhaps it’s time that we start calling it the Englert-Higgs boson. It’s as good a choice as any.

Dave Goldberg is a physics professor at Drexel University and author, most recently, of The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality.

Dave Goldberg is a physics professor at Drexel University and author, most recently, of The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality.