Sakurai prize announcement adds to Nobel speculation

Peter Higgs may have to be satisfied with this plushie prize, at least for now.

At 9:45 Greenwich Mean Time tomorrow morning (that’s 5:45 a.m. if you’re on the East Coast in America), the Nobel Prize committee will announce the winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. If you’re in Europe, or a particularly early riser, you can watch the live webcast of the announcement.

Everyone’s been tossing out Nobel Prize predictions this year, and a recent announcement of another award is adding to the growing pile of evidence that Peter Higgs won’t get his Swedish laurels tomorrow. The American Physical Society has awarded Higgs and five other physicists the 2010 J.J. Sakurai prize, one of the most distinguished awards a theoretical physicist can hope to get, “for elucidation of the properties of spontaneous symmetry breaking in four-dimensional relativistic gauge theory and of the mechanism for the consistent generation of vector boson masses”—that is, developing an explanation for how particles get their mass. According to this mechanism, there is a field that fills the entire universe, analogous to an electromagnetic field, and particles acquire mass by interacting with that field via the Higgs boson.

Wait—six physicists? But Higgs is the only one with his name on the particle! Ian Sample at the Guardian breaks it down:

Higgs wasn’t the only one working on the problem. In Brussels, Robert Brout and Francois Englert wrote out a similar theory that was published a couple of weeks before Higgs’s work appeared in print. Later that year, three more researchers weighed in (sorry) with their own account of mass. They were Gerry Guralnik at Brown University, [Carl] Hagen at Rochester University and Tom Kibble at Imperial College, London. Rarely however, are all six credited with contributing to the theory.

The CERN link above, is a good example of Sample’s final point—while careful to mention Robert Brout and François Englert, it fails to mention out Guralnick, Hagen, and Kibble. But the Nobel Prize can only be split three ways; David Harris at symmetry suggests that awarding the Sakurai prize to all six physicists might have put the Nobel people in a quandary:

So what will happen tomorrow? My guess is that the Nobel committee will avoid dealing with the difficulty of too many recipients for the time being and at least wait until there is movement on the experimental front of the Higgs search. Recognizing only three recipients for an experimental discovery will present a monster, and undoubtedly controversial, challenge for the Nobel committee.

Higgs might not get the Nobel, but that doesn’t mean excitement isn’t brewing underground in our favorite giant accelerator. There are clear signs of life—and imminent excitement—from CERN’s public information office, thanks a wonderful YouTube channel called
The following video goes underground with the CMS technical coordinator, in full hard hats, to check out how the detector’s commissioning is coming along. In the absence of beam coming through the accelerator, the collaboration can check that the instruments are aligned and in proper working order by using them to detect cosmic rays:

There’s more good news for fans of particle physics TV—a new episode of Colliding Particles is online! In an earlier post I introduced this beautifully shot web series chronicling the lives of three physicists who have a plan for finding the Higgs in all that ATLAS data. The latest episode shows both theorists and accelerator physicists readying for a restart, and addresses the tricky question of whether the multi-billion dollar accelerator deserves its price tag:

Colliding Particles – Episode 5: Collidonomics from Mike Paterson on Vimeo.

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