Prof. Higgs, Pay me my money down!

I waited few days before writing anything about the Nobel Prize for Physics 2013. As most people know at this point, this year the prize was awarded to François Englert and Peter 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”. I think it’s been a long time coming, those two guys really deserved a more-than-historical recognition for their work. Actually, there is a quite long list of living and deceased physicists who contributed to formalize the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism but eventually the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences opted for the two main contributors, and I agree with this choice.

However, this still tastes quite bittersweet to me, and surely it spurred a lot discussions around the blogshpere. So what’s the big fuss? To put it bluntly, I don’t think this prize would have ever been awarded to them (at least, not in their lifetime) without the experimental proof provided by CERN experiments. In fact, without big surprises, exactly one year after the discovery of the higgs boson (July 4th, 2012) two of the theorist who predicted its existence became Nobel laureates. Let me stress that I’m not saying here that CERN deserved the prize along with them: I don’t believe that just one experimentalist can be picked up and be awarded, nor I think it would be a good choice to change the prize assignment rules ad hoc for this occasion. Anyway, in my humble opinion, I think that the people involved have the possibility to do something “in exchange” for the recognition they just received.

  • As for the Academy of Sciences, I think they should make a bold decision and let organizations receive the prize as well as individuals. It is a very very bad example to let the laymen believe that science advances thanks to the sparks of very smart people. Isaac Newton himself once wrote that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants“. Scientific advance is a ever-ongoing process.  Also, I suggest the interested reader to spend few minutes reading this post by Jon Butterworth on The Guardian website.
  • As for profs. Englert and Higgs, I guess they are not going to buy a Ferrari with that money. I do believe it would be great if they founded a fellowship in theoretical physics to be spent at CERN explicitely. Especially in these dark days of cut-funding for science, this would represent a recognition of the effort of many, thanks to the intuition of fews.

Finally, let me play a bit with numbers. Each one of the fresh Nobel laureates received about 460,000 EUR. There is enough money for them to pay a pizza and a beer (let’s say 20 CHF) at CERN canteen R1 for each member of the ATLAS and CMS collaboration (~3500 people each) and still remain with about 300,000 EUR in their wallet, surely enough to fund some Fellowships. Moreover, I’m sure this would turn out to be a tremendous Saturday evening! Come on, mr. Higgs, pay us our money down!

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