Nobel Prizes: The Rule of Three

Here’s my story on the Nobel Prize Rule of Three and how a few Nobel non-laureates feel like they got left out in the cold. I’ll throw in a few more details here on the blog.

In 2010, the American Physical Society gave the Sakurai Prize to six theorists for their 1964 work that led, ultimately, to the hunt for the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs was one of those six. So was Francois Englert. Both were laureated yesterday. Another theorist, Robert Brout, Englert’s co-author in a key 1964 paper, died in 2011 and thus couldn’t, under the Royal Academy’s rules, receive the Nobel. The three living theorists who didn’t win the Nobel for the Higgs work — Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble — were to varying degrees disappointed yesterday morning when their phones didn’t ring. They felt that the Rule of Three kept them out of the money. The Royal Academy limits the prize to three recipients. The bypassed scientists were a package deal, because they worked together on a 1964 paper. To include them, the academy would have had to break its rule and give the prize to five people (or drop Englert and Higgs).

“I wasn’t the least bit surprised that this happened,” Hagen told me. “We’ve seen what was happening. There are a lot of influential Europeans that were trying to marginalize our work, and it was beginning to take effect, and so by the time the Nobel season rolled around we were pretty much convinced that this was going to happen.”

Here’s the full statement from Kibble, emailed to me early this morning:

“I am very glad to see that the Swedish Academy has recognized the importance of the mass-generating mechanism for gauge theories and the prediction of the Higgs boson, recently verified at CERN.  My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published in Physical Review Letters in 1964 (though we naturally regard our treatment as the most thorough and complete) and it is therefore no surprise that the Swedish Academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the Prize cannot be shared by more than three people.  My sincere congratulations go to the two Prize winners, François Englert and Peter Higgs.  A sad omission from the list was Englert’s collaborator Robert Brout, now deceased.”

That last point by Kibble deserves some emphasis. Brout co-authored the 1964 paper with Englert. The history books will record Englert as a Nobel Laureate but not Brout, simply because Brout made the mistake of dying two years too soon. But they did the work together. Indeed, the Royal Academy scientist who briefed the news media yesterday about the prize referred to the “Brout-Englert-Higgs-Mechanism.

Branding matters. Hagen told me that back in the mid-1960s a physicist named Ben Lee first began referring to the “Higgs mechanism” and the “Higgs particle,” and that he, Hagen, objected at the time. But by the time Steve Weinberg and others began creating the Standard Model, the “Higgs” label had stuck. (The theoretical papers discussing symmetry breaking, etc., are beyond my comprehension and I wouldn’t attempt to referee such a thing.)

Gradually, according to Guralnik’s version of the story, the Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble team saw their work cited less frequently. Guralnik wrote:

“We were sure that a clear claim had been staked for us, even without the first-publication place holder. Over the short term this was correct, but, after decades, colleagues died and many seemed to forget … . Initially, there seemed to be no problem getting recognition for what we did on a more than equal basis to the EB and H papers. This seemed to change around 1999, when our work began to be omitted from the references contained in important talks and papers, even by authors who had previously referenced us.”

Scientific priority is a big deal: That’s why we call it Darwinian evolution and not Wallacean evolution. The three theorists left out in the cold published last. That’s the fact. It doesn’t matter if their own paper was already sealed in an envelope, ready to be mailed, when they saw the rival papers.

Then they lost the branding battle. And then the world moved on, and their work began to fade.

This is a reminder, in case we needed it, that life isn’t fair. But I would suggest to the non-laureated that there are many others in their field, and in other fields, who have done stellar work that did not get fully appreciated by the world, much less Nobeled, if that’s a word.

The reason that no one called Tuesday at the crack of dawn is because, as a general rule, no one does.

[Update: Sean Carroll has a strong op-ed in the NYT saying it's time for the Rule of Three to go. Perhaps the academy would also re-think the no-posthumous-awards rule, at the very least in cases in which a living co-author is honored.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · October 4, 2013