Hot Physics Gossip: Maybe the Higgs Boson Won't Win the Nobel Prize

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A sexy little rumor (for physicists) has popped up on the internet just days ahead of when the committee is expected to announce the Nobel Prize on October 9: the Higgs boson team might not be a shoe-in for the win, as a theory on "quantum teleportation" emerges as a contender.

Quantum teleportation, as Reuters puts it, refers to the transfer of "information between two points without anything physical, like a radio wave, passing through space." Further, "This means it can't be intercepted and could provide a basis for totally secure mass communications, super-fast quantum computers and, eventually, a quantum internet much more powerful than the one we have today." And don't get us wrong, a faster Internet to play World of Warcraft to share knowledge sounds really awesome, but how exactly is that going to bump off something called "The God Particle?" 

Well, the reason that quantum teleportation is getting some fresh buzz is because it's the pick of a guy named David Pendlebury, a Thomson Reuters science wonk. Pendlebury each year goes through citations of a scientists' published papers, and "over the last decade 26 people from Pendlebury's list have won." Because of the results and his process, publications like Reuters, Popular Science, and USA Today look to him as their odds-maker. "We're not trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat," he told Reuters on September 18, when his pick of quantum teleportation first surfaced. "We're trying to demonstrate that citations in the literature are a strong indicator of peer esteem, which is the basis for awarding top prizes for research, such as the Nobel."

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Pendlebury and his citation theory is one way of tipping who may win. There also may be factors working against the Higgs boson team:

It's Too Soon: 

"It's too early for the Higgs boson team," Pendlebury told USA Today on September 21. We think that means that even though the Higgs was first written about in the 1960s, the results from this past year may be too fresh. 

They May Have Missed the Deadline 

As the AP points out today, the deadline for nominations was in February. The findings from ATLAS, CMS, and CERN concerning the Higgs weren't announced until July. That doesn't mean they weren't nominated (and we have no way of knowing unless Higgs wins since the list of nominations is kept secret for 50 years), but it would have had to be preemptively.

Jurors Want to Be Careful

"Handing out a prize too soon increases the risk of jurors failing to identify the right scientists behind a discovery," Per Carlson told the AP today.

Armed with this news, we asked Columbia's Peter Woitthe physicist/physics blogger/physics gossip/physics' TMZ who first broke news of the Higgs discoveries—about Pendlebury's theory and the idea about Higgs not coming away with the Prize. 

"My impression is that those predictions based on citation-tracking haven't worked very well in the past, no reason they should do better this year," he wrote to us over e-mail.  "For the Higgs, the relevant theory papers are 50 years old and rarely cited for that reason (once things get into the textbooks, people don't cite the papers). The relevant experimental papers have just appeared, too early for citations." And that makes sense—that the Higgs won't win a game of who has the most citations if people are still digesting the recently published papers and are in presumably in the process of writing them.

"The best case for a Nobel I think is for the experimental discovery announced in July," he told us, saying that the awarding a theory prize for the Higgs is "the specific theory that has just been tested is essentially the 1967 model of the Weinberg Salam, that has already been awarded a Nobel." So it's more the act of actually "discovering" the Higgs than the theory that's going to be rewarded. 

But as new as the experimental results are, the physics world has been waiting for them for decades. He thinks the Nobel committee has been waiting, too.

Presumably they've had several years to debate what they planned to do once a discovery was announced. Normally one would think that this is such a new result that they might wait a while to decide what to do, but since it is such a highly expected one, no reason to think that waiting will provide them any more information to make a decision on, or change the problem they have kind of obviously had in front of them for years.

As we mentioned in July, and as Woit reminded us today, another factor facing the Nobel committee is figuring out who to actually award when it comes to this prize (a maximum of three can be awarded).  "Personally if I had to pick I'd say give the prize to [Philip] Anderson, [Francois] Englert, [Peter] Higgs. One argument for doing this is that they're getting old and the chance to award them the prize may pass." Nobel awards cannot be awarded posthumously. 

"I have no idea though what the Nobel Committee will do," said Woit, who knows way more about physics and attended way more physics classes than any of us at The Atlantic Wire did. Funny, we were thinking the same thing. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.