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Higgs-Boson team robbed?

Virat Nehru questions the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics verdict

Serge Haroche of France (left) and David Windeland of the US, who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. Photo: The Guardian
Serge Haroche of France (left) and David Windeland of the US, who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. Photo: The Guardian

The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced last Tuesday and it was shared between Serge Haroche and David Wineland for experimental methods in measuring and manipulating charged atoms. The choice was puzzling, considering the rhetoric of 2012 has been shaped by the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle.

The question for the jury was – does the ‘announcement’ of the discovery of the particle in itself deserve to be recognised? There have been questions because the exact properties of the particle have not yet been determined. Yet this hardly seems to be a justification for denying what can be determined as a breakthrough in particle physics.

There is precedent to suggest that the jury does give out the Nobel Prize for works that are yet in the experimental stage. In fact, at the time of consideration this year, Mr Haroche and Mr Wineland’s methods of measuring and manipulating quantum systems were not definitive in themselves. The point is not to undermine or derogate the enormous efforts of the winners of this year, but rather, to validate the very nature of science.

The nature of science is not exact. Science, and especially physics, is a continuous empirical process of trial and error. At any given point in time, the definitive information regarding all variables at play is not available and as time progresses, scientists gather more data about variables previously unknown, which leads to proving theories right or wrong.

Let’s take a look at one of the greatest scientists – Albert Einstein. In the early 20th century, Einstein’s theory of gravity indicated that the universe was either expanding or contracting at a constant rate. However, the majority of the scholarship of his time believed that the universe was static and so, Einstein added what was termed as the ‘cosmological constant’ to accommodate the traditional thought of his time. Of course, in the 1920s, Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble telescope is named) proved that the universe is in fact, expanding. In 1998, astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter and others discovered that the universe was not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerating rate. Their work got them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.

Hence, giving the Nobel Prize for definitive conclusions that prove an event ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ goes against the very nature of the subject.

The Nobel Prize should continue to recognise substantial breakthroughs in the field, notwithstanding whether they are proved ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the future as more information becomes available.

The Higgs-Boson particle may be the key to determine why particles have mass and the existence of the universe. For Peter Higgs, after whom half the particle is named, at 83 years of age, it would have been an acknowledgment of a lifetime of pioneering work in particle physics.

After all, we don’t want the Nobel Prize for Physics to become the sideshow that the Nobel Prize for Peace has become, with a past recipient being Obama, and now, the European Union.