Nobel Prize for the Higgs? Meh, maybe

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The physics community online is abuzz with speculation about who will be awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. And in a lot of people’s minds, the announcement by ATLAS and CMS in July of a new particle, widely expected to be the Higgs boson, is the leading candidate.

Certainly nobody doubts that between the theoretical discovery of the Higgs mechanism and the experimental discovery of the presumed Higgs boson, there’s more than enough to deserve a Nobel Prize. And I hope and expect that some subset of the scientists involved will get it eventually. But I think making that announcement this year would be a little premature. For starters, we don’t actually know that it is the Higgs boson that was discovered at the LHC. Sure, it has a mass in the right range, and it decays to the right particles, but possibly in the wrong amounts. That could indicate that there is some extra effect that modifies the properties of the Higgs boson from what was predicted, or that it’s not the Higgs at all. The LHC will shed more light on that over the coming years, so it seems sensible to wait to be sure.

In fact, waiting is the Nobel committee’s modus operandi - it’s common for a prize to be awarded for work that was done completely 10, 20, even 30 years ago. They want to be cautious, to make sure that the work chosen to receive the prize is really among the greatest achievements in physics and not just a passing fad. There is some pressure to hurry up when it comes to the presumed Higgs boson because the theorists who predicted it are all getting old, and it would be very unfortunate if one or more of them died while waiting for the prize, but I don’t believe that’s such a pressing issue that it should force the award this year.

Of course, none of this speculation matters after the next few hours. One thing’s for sure: Higgs boson or not, there is no shortage of Nobel-quality work on the “waiting list,” so I’m sure the committee can’t go wrong.