How Could the Higgs Boson Lose the Nobel Prize?

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The Higgs boson discovery didn't win the Nobel Prize in Physics this year despite being the sexiest and perhaps the most significant physics discovery in the last 50 years. You might even be asking yourself why and pondering the meaning of life now that the Nobel jury didn't recognize the God Particle.

In recent months, the discovery of the Higgs boson became the Zenyatta/ Roger Federer/ Annette Bening circa 2011 of the physics world. People who weren't interested at all in physics, were drawn to the July 4 discovery, because it was touted as one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs this century. And we tried with all our might to figure out what bosons were, what the difference between the sigmas meant, and what CERN stands for in an effort to understand this "God Particle" a little bit more, especially since scientists were telling us it was really really important. It even caused journalists to write silly stories like ones about light speed travel being a possibility and that the particle killed religion (which no doubt added to the hype even though they were blatantly wrong). 

And then this massive favorite didn't win this morning and lost to something called Quantum optics, which sounds like a nerdy optometrist and obviously doesn't sound as cool as the God Particle. So what was all that hype about? And why didn't the most important scientific breakthrough win the Prize this year? Did it get Beninged? 

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Don't fret, we've got some answers: 

If They Had a Nomination, It Was a Shaky One

The nomination submission process for the Nobel closed in February, and the Higgs discovery happened in July.  So, because the Higgs breakthrough did not happen before the nomination process, scientists were banking on a nomination that was the equivalent of: in the even that this happens, give it to them. "Nominations must be in at the start of the year. Yes I am sure they will have already received nominations for all likely candidates but due process should require that they wait for nominations after the discovery I think," wrote physicist Peter Gibbs when he assessed the Higgs's Nobel chances last week, echoing the sentiment that the discovery-deadline conundrum might have done Higgs in.  "Since the original theoretical work was done in the early sixties, and the December 2011 hints were pretty suggestive, this can't have been a complete surprise. I would hope the committee was not taken unawares," wrote Jon Butterworth, a scientist who works on the ATLAS team which helped discover the boson this year, in The Guardian this morning. Butterworth's column actually defended the Higgs's Nobel chances, but even he acknowledged that the nomination would have had to be on spec.

It's Way Too Early

"It's too early. Even if the Higgs evidence from CERN was hammer-hitting-you-on-the-head conclusive (which it isn't), it would be a few years before the Nobel committee would likely award a prize," wrote science journalist Charles Seife in Slate last week. The idea of newness and novelty has been a narrative throughout the Higgs Nobel sweepstakes, but that unspoken Nobel rule (that you have to wait a while to get your award) hasn't really been applied to Higgs as much as other findings, because as Butterworth and others have mentioned, scientists have been waiting for the discovery since the 1960s.

The Committee Wanted to Wait

One of the reasons the committee might wait to give you an award is that that they want to make sure they're awarding the right people and the right people, and we've gone over that there's still one spot up for grabs—barring death, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert are locks for the Prize when the Higgs is finally recognized. That third share of the prize would make it difficult.

Another reason that the jury may want to wait is because of what was actually found, which brings us to our next reason. 

"We're still not entirely sure what we've found ..."

"Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish," Geoff Brumfiel, a physics reporter for Nature and Slate Contributor. In more specific science-speak, here's what Gibbs predicted last week: 

CERN are saying that by the end of this year they will have a good indication of the spin on their “new particle consistent with the Higgs boson” and then (if it is zero) they will claim it is the Higgs rather than a spin two graviton. It is of course an arbitrary line in the sand.

What that means for laypeople is that more conclusive data is going to be released in the next two months, and that the committee might have wanted to wait until that data was released. So ... data in December ... solid nomination in February ... and boom: Higgs would be lined up pretty nicely for  next year's Prize.

 But Butterworth, the ATLAS scientist,  is more than convinced that this reason is bogus. He wrote: 

A second reason given is that there is still doubt over the discovery. I don't buy this. There is no doubt that a new boson has been found; the only doubt is over whether it is exactly the Standard Model Higgs boson.

All that said, we completely understand if the above reasons aren't enough to make the heartbreak of the Higgs losing to the quantum optics duo hurt less. (Does knowing that the guy who may very well become the grandfather of metamaterials—invisibility cloaks to mere mortals like you and me— didn't win either make you feel any better?) And though we may never figure out the reason why the Higgs didn't win—no really, we may never know why as this is a committee that does things like seal its nominations for 50 years—there's always next year. 

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