Another chapter has unfolded in the dramatic saga of the Higgs boson. On the morning of October 8, 2013, the Swedish Academy of Science made an announcement that had been widely anticipated by the blogosphere: Francois Englert and Peter Higgs shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics for the prediction of a new physics mechanism to which Higgs (unwillingly) lent his name.
Event recorded with the CMS detector. Image credit: CERN
The Standard Model of particle physics is a stunningly successful theory that describes the matter of the universe. It was developed in the 1960s and has been extensively validated in the intervening decades. However, the theory had one striking weakness. It did not explain why the smallest and most fundamental particles had mass, instead of being massless, which seemed to be a more natural state of affairs.
In 1964, Belgian physicists Robert Brout and Francois Englert published a paper describing a way to modify a class of so-called Yang-Mills theories. By adding a new field of energy to the existing theories, they found, they could give subatomic particles mass.
British physicist Peter Higgs independently developed the idea and his treatment was published a couple of weeks later. A third treatment of the problem by the American physicists Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble appeared shortly thereafter. All three papers were named Milestone Papers by the American Physical Society in its 50th anniversary issue. A fourth paper, written by Peter Higgs, made the crucial observation that if this modification was true, it predicted a new particle. Over the intervening years, the energy field has come to be called the Higgs field and the predicted particle the Higgs boson.
While the ideas described in these papers from 1964 were possible explanations for the origins of the mass of fundamental particles, the ideas could have been wrong. In order to test the theory, scientists began a search for the Higgs boson.
On July 4, 2012, after nearly 50 years of searching, researchers using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Europe announced that they had found a new particle that was “consistent with being” a Higgs boson. In science, the term “consistent with being” has a technical meaning. It means that some of the predicted properties had been tested and verified but not all. It also means that no observations disagreed with the theory. By way of an analogy, if scientists had discovered a fruit that was consistent with being an apple, they might have touched and looked at the fruit and confirmed that it was apple-like, but they had not smelled or tasted it yet. Because of these residual uncertainties, awarding a Nobel Prize for the successful prediction of the Higgs boson in 2012 would have been premature.
In March of 2013, researchers updated their results, using two and a half times as much data as they used in July of 2012. With the extra data and more refined analysis techniques, the scientists were able to confirm that the newly-discovered particles had even more properties that were identical to those the Higgs boson was predicted to have. The case supporting the Higgs discovery was firming up.
There remains some possibility that the newly-discovered-particle is not the Higgs boson. For instance, the theories of 1964 predicted that a single variety of Higgs boson exists. Given that scientists have found only one variety, this is great news for the prediction. However it could be that there are other varieties of Higgs bosons that have not yet been discovered. Being absolutely sure will require more data taken at the LHC when it resumes operations in 2015.
So why award the Nobel Prize before this additional confirmation? First, the observed particle has many properties that are identical to the predictions of 1964. Those predictions seem to be part of the story. Second, time is a real concern. The prize cannot be awarded posthumously, and both Higgs and Englert are in their 80s. (Brout died in 2011.)
Thanks to the near-synchronicity of the milestone Higgs papers, narrowing the field of Nobel candidates must have been difficult. While the details of the selection process are private, it appears that the Swedish Academy of Science acknowledged that Englert and Brout got there first, while Higgs was the first to associate the new field with a particle. The decision was no doubt a difficult one, but is consistent with how the prize has been awarded in the past.
Our ongoing study of the rules that govern the universe is not complete with the observation of the Higgs boson, but the discovery is a tremendous step forward. The 2013 physics Nobel Prize is an affirmation of the importance of those ideas, first conceived of nearly half a century ago.
Author's suggestions for further reading
The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider
Author Don Lincoln's look inside the LHC and the physics it explores.
Massive: the Missing Particle that Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science
Science writer Ian Sample's examination of the quest for the Higgs.
Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the God Particle
Science writer Jim Baggott on the history and implications of the Higgs discovery.
The Particle at the End of the Universe
Physicist Sean Carroll goes behind the scenes at the LHC to explore the story of the search for the Higgs.
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921, the year of his Nobel Prize. Image credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia
It's 5 a.m. and you're sitting by the phone, hoping for that "magic call" from Stockholm that bears the news you've waited so long for: You've won the Nobel Prize in Physics! Whom will you tell first? How will you celebrate? And what color Bugatti should you buy with your prize money?1 But while you're mentally debating the relative merits of Obsidian Black and Italian Red, you realize that the sun has come up and the phone still sits silent: You've been passed over once again. How can you turn things around in 2013? With the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics expected to come on Tuesday, October 8, we consulted with winners and watchers of the Nobel Prize to prepare this helpful guide to nabbing your very own physics Nobel.
- Think big: What kind of discovery is most likely to earn Nobel laurels? Prize-winning work "runs the gamut" from basic to applied science and from lone-wolf labor to cast-of-thousands collaborations, says Adam Riess, who, along with Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, received the award in 2011 for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Says Riess: "I think the key is its importance must be fundamental, generally involving new physics."
- Do an experiment: Physicists are often divided into two camps: theorists, who need nothing more than paper, pencil, and their prodigious brains to do their work, and experimentalists, who toil and tinker with arcane equipment in their attempts to prove (or disprove) the ideas thought up by the theorists. So, which group bags more Nobels? In The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige, science historian Burton Feldman lands firmly on the side of experiment. Tallying up the winners from 1901 through 1999, he finds that experimentalists scooped up 87 awards while the theorists made do with a measly 51. Even Einstein, despite a bushel of nominations, was rejected year after year for the Nobel because his relativity theories were just that—theories. (He eventually won the 1921 prize, for his work on the photoelectric effect.) Experimentalists have continued to dominate in the last decade, with a few notable exceptions, like the 2004 award, which went to David Gross, David Politzer and Frank Wilczek for developments in the theory of the strong force, one of the fundamental forces of physics.
- Keep it in the family: Marie Curie shared the prize with her husband, Pierre Curie, and five father-son pairs have won the award (though only William and Lawrence Bragg won it in the same year for work done collaboratively). As David Kaiser, a physicist and science historian at MIT, puts it: To win the award, "one should select one's parents carefully."
- You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your thesis advisor: “As the great sociologist of science Harriet Zuckerman demonstrated years ago, among all the Nobel laureates who conducted their prize-winning research in the United States (at least up through 1972), more than half had been mentored early in their careers by other Nobel laureates,” reports Kaiser. “The proportion was highest—nearly 2/3—among Nobel Prize-winners in physics.”
- Be a man—and be eligible for the AARP: Of the 193 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, only two (Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer) were female. Average age: 55.
- Get lucky: “They key to winning the Prize, I believe, is to be extremely lucky,” says Riess. Of course, as any fortune cookie can tell you, good luck alone isn’t enough: it has to be combined with the day-in, day-out hard work that often obscures the serendipitous path to the breakthrough. But it is possible to “court serendipity” by being open to surprising and unexpected new findings. The Institute of Physics has compiled a list of just such lucky breaks. There’s Jocelyn Bell’s “accidental” discovery of pulsars—radio signals so uncannily regular that she momentarily thought they might be beacons from an alien civilization. (They weren’t. Incidentally, Bell didn’t get the prize; it went to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish. See #5, above.) And then there’s the first detection of the radio buzz we now know as the cosmic microwave background radiation, which future Nobel laureates Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson chalked up to pigeon droppings before they realized it was actually an electromagnetic echo of the Big Bang.
- Be patient: The Nobel committee is not much for instant gratification. Though some Nobel prizes come quick on the heels of the work that they honor—the 2010 award, for instance, went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene, just six years after the material was discovered—the prize more often comes a decade or two (or five) after the discoveries are first made. Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, for one, had to wait more than 40 years, and 53 years passed before Ernst Ruska was honored for building the first electron microscope that could out-magnify a traditional optical scope.
- Be prepared for life after Nobel: “What happens now to the rest of my life? What comes after this?” said Tsung-Dao Lee, who received the physics prize in 1957, when he was just 31. Indeed, some laureates, particularly those who receive the award early in their careers, founder after making the trip to Stockholm. As Mitchell Wilson put it in a 1969 essay in The Atlantic, "If, before winning the prize, the man has received very few, if any, of the signs of the scientific world’s recognition of the worth of his work, the sudden rise to stardom can completely distort the pattern of the rest of his life." But Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, asked to weigh in on how to up your Nobel odds, has a more spirited outlook: "I'm more confident giving this tip, about what to do immediately after winning a Nobel Prize. And that is, you should take some dancing lessons. They'll pay off handsomely during the festivities."
1Just kidding; I'm not aware of any Nobel laureates who plunked down their prize money on a supercar. Nobel winners typically spend the purse on serious and practical things, like charitable donations or their children's college fund. TIME put this impolite question to a handful of winners back in 2009; here are their answers.
Author's suggestions for further reading
The Atlantic: How Nobel Prizewinners Get That Way
In this 1969 essay, physicist-turned-novelist Mitchell Wilson profiles prominent winners of the physics Nobel, including his onetime boss, laureate Enrico Fermi.
The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige
The late science historian Burton Feldman's comprehensive history of the prize.
Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States
Published in 1977, this book by sociologist Harriet Zuckerman looks at the life and career trajectories of the scientific super-elite.
Quantum mechanics is one of the most devilishly confusing theories ever devised. Cats that are simultaneously alive and dead, objects that are both particles and waves, subatomic particles that know whether you are looking at them or not—and, most bafflingly, these quantum effects can be erased when individual atoms, electrons, and photons interact with their environment.
That is what makes Serge Haroche and David Wineland’s Nobel Prize-winning work in physics so remarkable: They have achieved mastery of the microrealm. Both of them have spent decades trying to generate systems in which a single atom or a single photon can be studied.
David Wineland, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, is an expert at trapping individual atoms using electric fields and by keeping them in an ultra-high vacuum. The mastery of individual atoms is possible by artfully employing laser beams and laser pulses. The laser beams can cool the motion of the atoms and even can transfer quantum information about the atom’s location to the location of electrons inside the atom. This is an extraordinary achievement.
Serge Haroche, of the Collége de France and the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, essentially does the opposite. He uses atoms to study individual photons. Using superconducting niobium, he creates the two most reflective mirrors ever achieved. With the mirrors placed about an inch apart, he introduces a single photon, which bounces back and forth for over a tenth of a second until it eventually hits an imperfection in the mirror and is absorbed. While the photon is bouncing, it travels a distance equivalent to circling the entire globe.
In order to measure the photon, Haroche fires single rubidium atoms through his equipment. These atoms are of a special class called “Rydberg atoms,” in which the electrons “orbit” very far from the atomic nucleus. (Though we now know that atoms do not operate as mini solar systems, the analogy of orbits can still be a useful one.) By measuring the configuration of the Rydberg atom before and after it travels through his apparatus, Haroche can determine if there is a photon inside his equipment without absorbing or altering the photon.
These techniques have made it possible to probe quantum mechanics in more detail than ever before, with Haroche’s work making it possible to effectively make a movie of the transition of a photon from one state to another, a process that scientists call “the collapse of the wave function." But these two scientists’ work has more practical applications. For instance, if we are able to put equipment into a quantum state and read that state without destroying it, this opens the possibility of quantum computing. The potential power of quantum computing is enormous and if we are able to actually accomplish it, this will change computing in the same degree that ordinary computing has changed the world since the 1940s. Quantum computing is still a ways in the future, but Haroche and Wineland’s work has brought it closer to fruition.
Wineland's work has also made possible a new generation of clocks that are 100 times more accurate than the best timekeepers in the world. These new clocks are precise to one part in 1017. To give some context, if these clocks were started when the universe began 13.7 billion years ago, by now they would be off by a mere four seconds. Such accuracy is useful for communication and navigation, and could also enable even more stringent tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which states that time runs slower in stronger gravitational fields. When people think about this effect, they usually invoke the mind-bending gravitational fields surrounding black holes, but these new clocks are so precise that the effect of time dilation due to gravity would be obvious if one of them were raised a mere foot off the surface of the Earth.
Haroche and Wineland’s work is of the highest caliber, with potential society-changing implications. In this year’s Nobel Ceremony on December 10, they will rightfully join their peers in the pantheon of great scientists.
Author's picks for further reading
Minute Physics: 2012 Nobel Prize: How Do We See Light?
In this video, learn more about how Serge Haroche uses atoms to study individual photos.
Nobel Prize: Particle control in a quantum world
Explore Haroche and Wineland's Nobel Prize-winning work in this popular-level article.
Nobel Prize: Measuring and manipulating individual quantum systems
Explore Haroche and Wineland's Nobel Prize-winning work in this technical-level article.
The Nobel Prize may be the most prestigious award in science, but the new Fundamental Physics Prize is by far the world's most lucrative scientific award, instantly making its first winners this August multimillionaires. But the size of the payout isn’t the only difference between the two prizes: Unlike the Nobel, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded for research that has not yet been verified by experiment. Is it foolhardy to extol work later findings might prove wrong?
The Fundamental Physics Prize is the brainchild of Russian tycoon Yuri Milner, a one-time physics graduate student turned billionaire investor in internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and Zynga. Milner personally selected the inaugural class of nine winners, each of whom received $3 million, roughly three times as much as a Nobel grant.
Although some of the work recognized by this year’s awards has been experimentally verified (for example, the principles of quantum computers are firmly grounded in experiment), others, like string theory, which compares elementary particles to loops of vibrating string, and the holographic principle, which suggests that our three-dimensional reality is a projection of information stored on a far-off two-dimensional surface, live further out on a theoretical limb.
Ideas like these may not get experimental verification any time soon, either. Take string theory. As Fundamental Physics Prize winner Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India, explains, "Unfortunately the strings are so small that the energy required for seeing these structures is huge, much larger that what we have achieved in the present day accelerators.”
Yet many physicists (including, unsurprisingly, some Milner honorees) argue that unverified ideas, and even ideas that are unverifiable with today’s technology, are prizeworthy—even if future tests should prove them wrong.
"Many of the most important developments in physics involve subjects for which there is little hope of experimental verification anytime soon," argued cosmologist Alan Guth at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the winners of the Milner prize. Guth invented the theory of cosmological inflation, which suggests our universe expanded staggeringly just a sliver of a second after it was born. This rapid expansion that would help explain, among other things, why the cosmos is so extraordinarily uniform on large scales, with only very tiny variations in the distribution of matter and energy.
In fact, two of the greatest theoretical breakthroughs of the 20th century—Albert Einstein's theories of special and general relativity—were never honored by a Nobel Prize, said Stanford cosmologist Andrei Linde, another winner of the Fundamental Physics Prize. These ideas changed the world by showing that mass and energy are equivalent and that gravity is a result of mass curving the fabric of space and time. Although Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, he was given the prize not for relativity but for describing how light was composed of discrete packets of energy now called photons, because the Nobel committee felt that relativity had not at the time been verified.
"More recently, we have the case of the Higgs particle, with almost 50 years between the theoretical advance and the experimental verification," Guth added. "If this kind of theoretical work is not respected, then progress in fundamental physics would suffer tremendously."
Even if theoretical research does lead to a dead end, it can help inform what ultimately prove to be successful ideas, said theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a winner of the new prize who has investigated ideas such as extra dimensions of reality and new theories regarding the Higgs particle.
"One of the great developments in physics in the 20th century was the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains particles such as electrons and quarks and gluons," Arkani-Hamed said. "But before the Standard Model was known to work, there were people exploring lots of other theoretical possibilities that might be consistent with our world. Even if they didn't pan out, collecting ideas that have a chance of working may help lead to developments like the Standard Model."
“Wrong” ideas can advance science in other ways, too. "We should keep in mind that Newtonian mechanics was ultimately found to be incorrect, but it nonetheless was a momentous force in driving science forward," Guth said. "Today there are many developments in physics that are recognized by the community as being important, even though we cannot prove that they are correct."
As to how the prize-winners might spend their gains, other than paying taxes and mortgages, they often said they were still in shock over the award. "I continue to remind my students that they should not go into physics for the money," Guth said.
Editor's picks for further reading
Fundamental Physics Prize
The official web site of the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation.
Nature: Theoretical physicists win massive awards
Geoff Brumfield talks with winners—and critics—of the new prize.
New York Times: 9 Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize
Kenneth Chang reports on the announcement of the Fundamental Physics Prize winners.
Physicists are on the brink of a breakthrough discovery: They may have finally cornered the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle hypothesized to give mass to all the stuff in the universe. But should we really be calling this particle the “Higgs”?
A computer simulation of a detection of the Higgs boson. Or is that the ABEGHHK’tH boson? Credit: David Parker/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Peter Higgs, it turns out, wasn’t the only one to come up with the idea of a new field (the Higgs field) that endows particles with mass. In fact, he wasn’t even the first to publish the theory. That distinction goes to Robert Brout and Francois Englert at the Free University in Brussels, who wrote up the idea in August 1964. Higgs was close on their heels with his own paper in October of the same year. Just a few weeks later, Dick Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble published their take on what would come to be known as the Higgs field and Higgs boson.
This wasn’t plagiarism: It was a kind of synchronicity that is the norm in science, says MIT science historian David Kaiser. In fact, independent research groups simultaneously arrive at similar breakthroughs so often that Robert Merton, a sociologist of science, put a name to the phenomenon: multiples. One famous multiple is calculus, which was simultaneously “discovered” by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the late 17th century. More recently, the accelerating expansion of the universe was observed at nearly the same time by two competing groups of astronomers, both of which were honored with the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.
Higgs, Brout, Englert and the rest were continuing a tradition that is as old as physics itself. But why is “Higgs” the name that stuck? “Higgs expressed the challenge”—how do we get particles that have mass and still obey the rules of symmetry?—“and the expected solution especially sharply,” says Kaiser. Another recounting pins the name on Ben Lee, a physicist who used “Higgs” as shorthand in a 1972 Fermilab conference program after having had a productive lunch chat with Higgs.
Higgs himself has always been uncomfortable seeing his name ride solo. He prefers to call the particle the “scalar boson” or the “so-called Higgs,” Ian Sample writes in his book “Massive.” Higgs has also advanced the uncommonly inclusive acronym ABEGHHK’tH—that’s the Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble and ‘t Hooft—to honor all the scientists who played a part in originating the theory.
Frank Wilczek, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has named a few particles of his own (anyons and axions—the latter inspired by a laundry detergent), thinks that the alphabet soup solution would be “especially absurd.” Says Wilczek: “History is complicated, and wherever you draw the line there will be somebody just below it!”
If the Higgs discovery is confirmed, though, someone will have to draw that line—and that someone will be the Nobel Prize committee. The discovery is seen as a shoo-in for the physics honor, but the prize can be divided among no more than three laureates. There are at least six scientists with reasonable claims on the Higgs—not to mention the cast-of-thousands teams whose instruments are responsible for the experimental evidence that the Higgs actually exists.
Complicating matters is physicists’ anarchic naming methodology. When astronomers have planets, moons, and asteroids in need of naming, they turn to the International Astronomical Union. Elements get their formal names from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Physicists, who have no such official naming body, have historically opted for descriptive names, like “neutrino” (“little neutral one”), or names devoid of any physical meaning at all, like “up,” “down,” and “charm.” As a particle named after a person, the Higgs is essentially alone among the fundamental elementary particles.
So what should we be calling the Higgs? “By now it's so deeply embedded in the literature that changing to another name would be jarring, and might introduce a gratuitous complication in literature searches or eventually even a hurdle to parsing older papers,” says Wilczek. If he had to choose? “A possibly better choice might be ‘zeron,’ to connote that the particle has zero quantum numbers, and in some sense is an ingredient of what we call nothingness.”
“I’d find a fancy-sounding word in ancient Greek, to give it gravitas, and then add ‘on,’” says Kaiser. In the absence of a Greek dictionary, Kaiser nominates “lardon”—a particle that makes things heavy.
Ultimately, it may come down to branding. “In business, it would be considered destructive to take a well-known name and replace it with a long-winded, technical-sounding alternative that no one has heard of,” wrote the editors of Nature in a recent editorial. Indeed, “Higgs” seems to have captured the public imagination—and it makes a much better Twitter hashtag than #ABEGHHK’tH.
Now it’s your turn: If you could rename the Higgs, what would you call it?
Editor's picks for further reading
Facebook: Peter Higgs
No, you can't "friend" him, but you can "like" him.
FQXi: Higgs Almighty
Whatever you call it, please stop calling it the “God particle,” says blogger William Orem.
PHD Comics: Higgs Boson Explained
In this video, particle physicist Daniel Whiteson at CERN explains how the LHC is searching for the Higgs boson.