The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has certain strict rules when it comes to Nobel Prizes. The recipient must be living. And no prize will be awarded to more than three individuals.
Hagen, 76, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, is one of six physicists, five of them still alive, who have been credited with developing the theory that led to the epic quest for the particle known as the Higgs boson. Scientists at CERN, the European physics laboratory, announced last year in Geneva that they had found it with the atom-smasher called the Large Hadron Collider.
Tuesday morning, Hagen awoke at 6:30 and looked at his phone.
The new Nobel laureates in physics are 84-year-old Englishman Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, and Francois Englert, 80, of Belgium. The selection, though widely applauded by physicists around the world, provided a reminder that the system for awarding Nobel Prizes is not an exact science, and can deliver a painful blow to the bypassed.
Hagen was part of a collaboration with two other theorists in a key 1964 theoretical paper. For the Swedish Academy to have recognized Hagen, they would have had to honor his co-authors as well, which would have meant bypassing Higgs and Englert. Or the academy could have broken its own rules and made all five laureates.
“Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an evenhanded judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook,” Hagen said in a blunt e-mail shortly thereafter. “Not a graceful concession by any means, but that department has never been my strong suit.”
Hagen’s collaborator Gerald Guralnik, a professor of physics at Brown University, discovered that he’d been bypassed when he turned on his computer Tuesday morning.
“It stings a little,” Guralnik said. But he added: “All in all, it’s a great day for science. I’m really proud to have been associated with this work that has turned out to be so important.”
Rarely has a Nobel Prize announcement arrived with so much hype. It was as if the prize would be the final validation of the Higgs discovery.
The Higgs boson has surely been the most charismatic creature in the physics bestiary ever since scientist Leon Lederman dubbed it “the God particle.” According to the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs is associated with an invisible field that is part of the infrastructure of the cosmos. The mass of particles is determined by how they interact with this field.
The Nobel committee said it gave the prize to Englert and Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”