Honestly, last year’s announcement of the discovery of a Higgs-like particle at CERN should have come with a spoiler warning. But it spoiled nothing. That was the world’s happiest PowerPoint presentation – probably the only genuinely joyful slideshow in history – with everyone basking in the most advanced form of “Woohooo we did it!” possible, which is “We are SO getting the Nobel Prize for this.”
It significantly simplified the normally challenging task of selecting the Nobel Prize in physics. Where once you’d have advanced expert reports and high-level comparisons at the various expanded boundaries of human understanding of existence, this year we must have had some extremely intelligent people sitting around finding ways to say “Well, obviously.” It must have been the only Nobel selection meeting with less discussion than the average office coffee run.
I can just see them all trying to fill time to make the meeting look official. Catching up on their mail. Discussing the weather in terms of chaos theory. Advanced particle physics taking out their phone to finally try “Angry Birds”.
It’s was also nice to see a better reason for waiting until everyone involved is almost dead before awarding the prize. Peter Higgs is 85 and Francois Englert is 80, but the necessary data didn’t arrive until last year, so they really did catch the next Nobel prize like it was the next bus. Many other physicists have changed the world and still had to struggle through it for decades before the Academy decided “Oh, here you go, a pass to all the access and funding you really could have used half a century ago. Good luck, hope your brain’s still working.”
The key point is that the Nobel Prize in Physics is only awarded to people after they’ve actually done something. It’s not like the Peace Prize, which can apparently be awarded on credit in the hopes that its magic Swedish gold will influence the recipient. If they’d done that with the Physics prize, maybe Higgs and Englert would have got them years ago, and they could have used the newly hollowed-out LHC tunnel to hold people without charge or trial for decades instead.
The only acrimony in physics is a rather arbitrary rule that the prize cannot be divided among more than three people. Which is unfortunate, since six people put together the theory at around the same time, and tens of thousands have worked on it since. But Higgs and Englert were the first, and the next paper had three authors, so that is apparently that. Guralnik, Kibble, and Hagen were simply too numerous to share the prize – and they were only that close to running because Englert’s collaborator Brout was already disqualified by death.
Higgs himself hasn’t been hankering after fame, saying that the particle should be called the “scalar boson”. But with the entire world calling it the Higgs boson that’s unlikely. And if your main problem is that the entire world is discussing the latest breakthrough in particle physics, but prefers a different name, you realize that we really are advancing as a species.
Of course the particle has an even worse name. Read all about it with 7 Ridiculous Things People Believe About The ‘God Particle’