Frank Close reflects on the new boson find
By Frank Close
Now that the boson has been found (yes, I know we physicists have to use science-speak to be cautious, but it’s real), I can stop hedging and answer the question that many have been asking me for months: how do six people who had an idea share a Nobel Prize that is limited to three? The answer is: they don’t. To paraphrase George Orwell: All may appear equal, but some are more equal than others.
A review of the original edition of The Infinity Puzzle in The Economist graciously said the following: “Mr Close’s magisterial work is sure to become the definitive account of the story. It offers no unambiguous advice to the Nobel committee. But the judges would be wise to give it a thorough read anyway.”
First and foremost, today is a triumph for engineering — the design, construction and successful operation of the most extensive complex precision instrument in history. If the new Engineering Prize that has ambitions to rival the Nobel were to honour the pioneers who conceived, designed and successfully commissioned the Large Hadron Collider, few would argue, although deciding whom to honour out of a cooperative involving hundreds, possibly thousands of people, spanning more than two decades may be a challenge. Also, the discovery is testament to the skills of hordes of experimenters, who used this to find the nature of reality, and I addressed the problems of dealing with their recognition in The Infinity Puzzle. It is the six (sadly now five) theorists where the manouevring begins.
Higgs’ name is a household word, but he was beaten into print by Robert Brout and Francois Englert. Even they had been anticipated by two young Russian theorists: Sacha Migdal and Sacha Polyakov. The latter duo, having received negative and incorrect criticisms from some skeptical senior scientists, published nothing until after the above had done so. Gerry Guralnik, Dick Hagen and Tom Kibble, independently aware of the basic ideas around the same time and ignorant of what Brout, Englert and Higgs had done, were also scooped.
Brout sadly died in 2011, unaware that in his intellectual dreams he had glimpsed reality. Today, this leaves Englert undisputed as first to have published the mass mechanism in relativistic quantum field theory. While it is wrong to refer to the “Higgs mechanism,” the eponymous boson is fairly named as he alone mentioned the massive boson that now carries his name. By 1966 he had noted that its decays may prove whether the mechanism is truly in Nature’s lexicon. Finally, there is the singular role of Tom Kibble.
In 1967, Kibble used the pieces of intellectual lego that he had earlier constructed with his collaborators, Guralnik and Hagen, to build the empirical model whose truth is now being revealed. He showed how the photon of the electromagnetic force stays massless, while other bosons (now realized to be the W and Z, carriers of the weak force) gain mass. Kibble’s work also inspired Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam to incorporate his ideas in the works that led to their Nobel awards in 1979. Also, as one of the Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble team — which was so narrowly beaten to the tape in 1964 — Kibble is also special in having been involved throughout the entire construction.
As for Jeffrey Goldstone, who started all this; James Bjorken, who first showed the way; thousands of engineers who made the Large Hadron Collider the most remarkable scientific instrument in history; and the experimentalists who have used it so successfully, they all have touched the mystery of knowing Nature. The solution to the infinity puzzle is now becoming clear. But of the theorists who wrote papers in 1964, showing how the carriers of the fundamental forces gain mass, Englert, Higgs, and Kibble in my judgment have special roles.
Peter Higgs today said how happy he is to see the results in his lifetime. These scientists have been waiting 48 years and hopefully the Nobel Committees will not delay further. Whether they will agree with my assessment at all, hopefully will become clear by October.
Frank Close is a particle physicist, author, and speaker. He is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of several books, including The Infinity Puzzle, Neutrino, Nothing: A Very Short Introduction, Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction, and Antimatter. Close was formerly vice president of the British Association for Advancement of Science, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. Read more of what Frank Close has to say about neutrinos here and here.