On the Higgs row and Nobel reform
“The goddess of learning is fabled to have sprung full-grown from the brain of Zeus, but it is seldom that a scientific conception is born in its final form, or owns a single parent.” George Paget Thomson, June 1938.
Speaking in his Nobel lecture, G. P. Thomson (son of J.J.) went on to lay out the history of physics behind the electron, but his comment could easily refer to the Higgs mechanism, which has a muddled parentage at best.
Last week, Nature carried news of a dust-up over who should get credit for the mass-giving theory that has ended up with Higgs’s name. The website for a “Higgs Hunting” conference in Paris referred only to three of the six physicists who lay claim to the idea. The names up in lights were Francois Englert, Robert Brout and Peter Higgs. Those missed off the billing were Gerald Guralnik, Dick Hagen and Tom Kibble.
The row came as no surprise. As the Large Hadron Collider and Tevatron at Fermilab close in on the Higgs particle, the three aggrieved physicists, known as GHK, feel time is running out to get their work acknowledged. Let’s not forget that none is getting any younger.
Arguments over who deserves credit for the Higgs mechanism are not going to go away. A Nobel prize will undoubtedly be dished out when (ok, if) the Higgs boson is discovered, since it will be the first direct proof that the mass generating mechanism is right. But Nobels can go to a maximum of three people. That leaves GHK in a precarious position.
Guralnik and Hagen believe some European physicists are trying to write them out of history, which if accomplished, would certainly make life easier for the Nobel committee. As a counter-offensive, they and their supporters are lobbying very hard to get their contribution recognised, and with some success. The American Physical Society recently honoured all six physicists in its list of milestone papers of 1964, and gave them this year’s Sakurai prize. Peter Higgs did not attend the award presentation. It would have been the first time all six met.
I thought it might be helpful to lay out the key papers on mass generation, all of which appeared in print within three months of each other in 1964. Here they are:
31st August 1964: Francois Englert and Robert Brout (full paper, received 26 June)
15th September 1964: Peter Higgs (initial idea, received 27 July)
19th October 1964: Peter Higgs (full paper, received 31 August, first to highlight signature boson)
16th November 1964: Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble (full paper, received 12 October)
So Englert and Brout were first to publish on mass generation. Peter Higgs was next into print, with a short letter on the idea, though his real contribution came in October, when he was first to point out that the theory came with a signature particle: a massive boson. Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble published last, though their paper was received at the editorial offices of the journal before Higgs’s second paper was printed.
On the strength of the publication history, Englert and Brout were clearly ahead in describing the idea. Higgs was first to highlight the signature particle that, if found, will convince physicists the theory is right. Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble were close behind, and the dates support their claim that they came up with the theory independently.
One point that must irk GHK, is that some physicists say their contribution carries less weight not only because it was published last, but because it references the papers by Englert, Brout and Higgs.
Writing in 2009, Guralnik explains how this came about:
“As we were literally placing the manuscript in the envelope to be sent to PRL, Kibble came into the office bearing two papers by Higgs and the one by Englert and Brout. These had just arrived in the then very slow and unreliable…Imperial College mail. We were very surprised and even amazed.”
The article goes on to say:
“We unhesitatingly thought we should do the completely honest thing and reference them, as they were clearly relevant with examples, even if not convincing to us. Our paper was finished and typed in final form when we saw these other works and made this decision.”
And finally, the regret:
“We were naïve enough to feel that these other articles offered no threat to our insights or to the crediting of our contribution. Nearly 45 years later, it is clear that we were very wrong.”
By chance, Nature covered the fuss in the same issue they published a letter of mine that explains how the Higgs boson got its name. I finished the letter by pointing out that Higgs is the first to acknowledge the contributions of other physicists. At one conference, he suggested renaming the “Higgs mechanism” the “ABEGHHK’tH mechanism” after all the people who discovered it or rediscovered it (Phil Anderson, Robert Brout, Francois Englert, Gerald Guralnik, Dick Hagen, Peter Higgs, Tom Kibble, Gerard ‘t Hooft).
Phil Anderson at Princeton University claims to have “invented” the Higgs boson in 1962 (though the relevant paper was published in 1963). Anderson certainly had the right idea, but he did not provide a thorough enough analysis for particle physicists to take his idea too seriously.
So if the Higgs boson is found, who should the Nobel prize go to? History suggests the people who actually find it, the experimentalists, will not get a call from Stockholm. That leaves our six theorists. Do GHK miss out because they were pipped at the post? I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision.
The issue raises questions about the Nobel prizes and whether the rules behind them need revising. Modern science is more complex than it was. In some fields, it takes teams of hundreds to run a single experiment. Is an award that can honour the work of three people at most really fit for purpose? Why not give it to teams of researchers? The argument against this is that increasing the number of recipients dilutes the kudos of the prize. That may be the case for the individual, but it takes nothing away from the breakthrough. Perhaps the award should reward progress, not people? Over time, the prestige of being a Nobel laureate will lose its lustre, but think how many scientists might slip quietly into retirement with their reputations intact as a result?