Well, contrary to Sean Carroll’s guess, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this morning to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert. The news came out only about 20 minutes ago, and is the subject of a terse New York Times piece:
STOCKHOLM — Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the two scientists for the “theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.”
The physics prize announcement was delayed by one hour, which is highly unusual. The academy gave no immediate reason, other than saying on Twitter that it was “still in session” at the original announcement time.
The academy decides the winners in a majority vote on the day of the announcement.
Why the delay? I have no idea, but there has been a lot of speculation about who, exactly, should get the prize for the Higgs boson. Nobels are awarded to at most three people, and there were a gazillion experimentalists who contributed to their discovery (they, of course, don’t get the gold). Perhaps there were last-minute ruminations in Stockholm?
Sean Carroll beefed about the prizes in general in a post at Preposterous Universe, “The Nobel Prize is really annoying.” Carroll says he’s coming around to Richard Feyman’s view, which is that prizes in science, and the Nobel in particular, are bad things. I tend to agree. I remember Feynman saying that he resigned from the National Academy of Science because, he claimed, their sole purpose was to determine who to let in and who to keep out.
Carroll dislikes the Nobels for three reasons:
1. There are at most three winners.
The most annoying of all the annoying aspects is, of course, the rule in physics (and the other non-peace prizes, I think) that the prize can go to at most three people. This is utterly artificial, and completely at odds with the way science is actually done these days. In my book I spread credit for the Higgs mechanism among no fewer than seven people: Philip Anderson, Francois Englert, Robert Brout (who is now deceased), Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble. In a sensible world they would share the credit, but in our world we have endless pointless debates (the betting money right now seems to be pointing toward Englert and Higgs, but who knows).
2. It’s the theoreticians and not the experimentalists who get them.
The folks who should really be annoyed are, of course, the experimentalists. There’s a real chance that no Nobel will ever be given out for the Higgs discovery, since it was carried out by very large collaborations. If that turns out to be the case, I think it will be the best possible evidence that the system is broken. I definitely appreciate that you don’t want to water down the honor associated with the prizes by handing them out to too many people (the ranks of “Nobel Laureates” would in some sense swell by the thousands if the prize were given to the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, as they should be), but it’s more important to get things right than to stick to some bureaucratic rule.
Indeed. If you can give the Peace Prize to organizations (e.g., Doctors Without Borders), then why not to entire groups of experimentalists? Somehow it seems wrong to laud the people who postulated the Higgs, but neglect those who discovered it. Both groups are essential to get the truth. (I note, of course, that experimentalists have gotten the Prize in physics, but, given the large groups needed to confirm discoveries that require accelerators, that seems on the way out.
3. They create a bad climate for science.
The worst thing about the prizes is that people become obsessed with them — both the scientists who want to win, and the media who write about the winners. What really matters, or should matter, is finding something new and fundamental about how nature works, either through a theoretical idea or an experimental discovery. Prizes are just the recognition thereof, not the actual point of the exercise.
Again I agree. The whole notion of Prizes for science rankles a bit—though I have to say I’m not pure enough to turn any down! The real prize in science is the thrill of discovery—of finding out something that nobody’s seen before. Or, for theoreticians, to posit the existence of something that, many years later, gets found. How cool is that? Prizes seem to me to corrupt that system a bit, and in some cases even create animosities between groups vying for the Nobel. I won’t name names, but I know of one famous scientist who, on his deathbed, was hugely concerned about whether he’d get a specific award before he died. That seems to me a bit pathetic. (On the other hand, awards may spur on progress as people strive to be the first to discover something. I’m sure that’s the case for the Pauling/Watson & Crick rivalry for the structure of DNA.)
Don’t get me wrong: like Sean, I think this year’s physics prize is well deserved; as he notes, “. . if any subset of the above-mentioned folks are awarded the prize this year or next, it will be absolutely well-deserved — it’s epochal, history-making stuff we’re talking about here.”
But he adds:
The griping from the non-winners will be immediate and perfectly understandable, but we should endeavor to honor what was actually accomplished, not just who gets the gold medals.
And I wonder if the experimentalists are feeling a wee bit overlooked this morning.
Notes added in proof:
1. I’m an experimentalist, so I may be biased.
2. I have less objection to prizes in literature, as authors don’t really compete for that award, and great authors often aren’t widely recognized (or handsomely remunerated).