This morning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced, and it was given to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for the 1964 theory of what’s now often called the Higgs mechanism, recently directly confirmed experimentally by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (as you might recall) by the finding of the Higgs particle. You might recall that the mechanism, also associated with the term “symmetry breaking”, is responsible for the masses of the elementary particles, as has been discussed here and elsewhere a lot. (And recall, that it has little to do with the mass of everyday objects, as people sometimes say. That’s a different matter… everyday objects’ mass is dominated by their binding energy… coming from the forces that hold them together… not the Higgs mechanism.)
The first thing to say is “Congratulations!” to the winners. It is sad that Robert Brout (Englert’s co-author) passed away before he could get the prize as well. A nice thing you can do is take a look at the actual papers that are central to the citation in Physical Review Letters right here, as the APS have made them specially available. It’s good to take a look at what the actual papers look like, to get a sense for how our field works, so go ahead. I also recommend the lovely book of Frank Close, “The Infinity Puzzle” for a very good presentation of much of the ideas and history of this and related chapters in the field of particle physics.
My own thoughts on all of this are mostly of delight, but there’s something else there as well. Without a doubt, it is great to see particle physics and the pursuit of the answers to basic questions about our universe being celebrated in this way once again by the broader culture. That’s always great, and it is hugely important. But as an insider (someone who works in the field, and was brought us steeped in the particle physics culture) there’s this feeling of inevitability that sort of tempers the delight in a way. It is not a surprise that the prize went this way this year, and that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. It was also going to be inevitable that various people (Kibble, Guralnik, Hagen) would be left off the list due to the constraints of the prize itself (three people maximum). It all feels a bit like a train that one can’t stop (not that one wants to) because I’ve been part of discussions about this almost as long as I’ve been in a university. You see, I started out in 1986 at Imperial College, in London, as an undergraduate, and interested in particle physics right from the beginning (and before) and so Kibble’s contribution was always something that was discussed a lot. He was discussed in hushed reverence by us young undergraduates, and the rumours of his contributions, combined with his quiet dignity as he taught us, always made us feel like we were in the presence of greatness. It helped lend a certain atmosphere to the whole department at Imperial, the whole time I was there, at least from my particle-physics tinged perspective. The bottom line was that there was this important piece of work that had been done, and one day there would be a big prize give out in recognition of it. Then I went to Southampton for graduate work, becoming part of a vibrant research group where most of the discussion about the future of the field was (correctly) centered around that fabulous machine that would be built one day to look for the Higgs – The LHC. Even though the department had less of the weight of Great Deeds lurking in all its corridors, the particle physics group was strongly phenomenologically oriented, and so Higgs, (the particle and the mechanism) was central to a lot of what was discussed. Again, that inevitability.
Higgs himself was discussed a great deal as the central personality associated with the mechanism itself, mostly as shorthand, I think, since it was easier than saying six names. That continued for years, and then the machine was built, and we celebrated that. It was switched on, and we celebrated. It found a Higgs-like particle, and we celebrated on the 4th July 2012. Then the particle was confirmed as a Higgs this year and we celebrated. (Well, actually, nobody celebrated much beyond the core community since the PR had done such a powerful job last year that the public was quite confused about what was announced this year.) So the next thing to talk about was the Nobel Prize, and people did – a lot. And now here we are…
I say all this to give you a sense of the 27 year arc I’ve been watching unfold before me. An almost textbook demonstration of how the dialogue with Nature is supposed to work, from idea to confirmation, to recognition, played out with such precision and such inevitability that I end up feeling a little bit paralyzed by it, while at the same time being delighted by it all. I’m not concluding anything profound with all this, just recording/reporting my impressions about it all.
Being human is deliciously odd at times.