Nobel committee’s ‘Rule of Three’ means some Higgs boson scientists were left out

Carl Richard Hagen put his cellphone by the bed before he retired Monday night, just in case. The call from Stockholm, if it came, would come before dawn Tuesday.

But he wasn’t optimistic. Two other people seemed much more likely to win the Nobel Prize in physics. He knew why, too: the Rule of Three.

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.

No calls.

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 2013 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded jointly to Francois Englert and Peter W. 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." (nobelprize.org)

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.”

Englert, sounding unsurprised, materialized by voice in a teleconference after the announcement in Stockholm, and discussed the enduring unknowns in physics (dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity). A Nobel committee official said no one had been able to reach Higgs, despite multiple phone calls. Higgs remained nearly as elusive Tuesday as the famous particle that carries his name.

“I am overwhelmed to receive this award,” Higgs said in a brief statement released by the University of Edinburgh. “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”

The experimentalists didn’t feel overlooked. Fabiola Gianotti, a research physicist at CERN, said, “It’s very nice that the ATLAS and CMS experiments have been cited in the Nobel motivation. . . . The young physicists here are super excited.”

The efforts at CERN involved thousands of scientists, and it would have been impossible to find just a few experimentalists to honor, said Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society.

“Discoveries more and more involve a village,” Turner said. “It took 10,000 people and $10 billion and 20 years to build the instrument that made this discovery, and you’d be hard pressed to narrow that group down even to 100, let alone to three.”

First came the theory. In the latter half of 1964, the six theorists published three separate papers just a few months apart in the prestigious journal Physical Review Letters. The first came from Englert and co-author Robert Brout, who died in 2011 and thus was ineligible for the Nobel. The second came from Peter Higgs. The third came from Guralnik, Hagen and Tom Kibble.

Guralnik has written an account of how he and his colleagues developed their theory and defended it against early skeptics. Guralnik said his team had been overly cautious in submitting their work for publication. Then, with their paper already sealed in an envelope and ready to be mailed to a scientific journal, they saw pre-prints of the two papers by Englert/Brout and Higgs.

“Frankly, we didn’t even take them very seriously at the time. We thought they missed the main point,” Guralnik said.

Hagen said, “We felt immodestly that ours was the best treatment.” He and his co-authors had no inkling that this would be historic stuff, and did not worry about scientific priority. They certainly didn’t want to “get involved in a long quibble about it,” he said.

The third author of their paper, Kibble, of Imperial College London, was quoted in a story on the college’s Web site saying that, although he regards his team’s work as “the most thorough and complete” theory, the other two papers were published first 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.”

“Should I worry about the textbooks say about me 30 years from now?” Hagen asked. “Maybe not. That’s why I guess I can be a little bit remote on this and say, yeah, it hurts, but it doesn’t really change my life in some fundamental way. It will reduce my ultimate impact on the literature of this sub-field.”

Swedish Academy decisions are final.

“You don’t get to say to the Nobel Prize committee, ‘You got it wrong,’ ” said Nobel laureate John Mather, an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mather knows what a Nobel can mean for a scientist. He’s constantly invited to give lectures now. But in many ways he’s just a government employee like everyone else.

Nobel or not, he’s still furloughed.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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