Field of Science

Nobelist John Pople on using theories and models the right way

John Pople was a towering figure in theoretical and computational chemistry. He contributed to several aspects of the field, meticulously consolidated those aspects into rigorous computer algorithms for the masses and received a Nobel for his efforts. The Gaussian set of programs that he pioneered is now a mainstay of almost every lab in the world which does any kind of molecular calculation at the quantum level.

On the website of Gaussian is a tribute to Pople from his former student (and president of Gaussian) Michael Frisch. Of particular interest are Pople’s views on the role of theories and models in chemistry which make for interesting contemplation, not just for chemists but really for anyone who uses theory and modeling.

  • Theorists should compute what is measured, not just what is easy to calculate
  • Theorists should study systems people care about, not just what is easy or inexpensive to study.
Both these points are well taken as long as one understands that it’s often important to perform calculations on ‘easy’ model systems to benchmark techniques and software (think of spherical cows…). However it’s also a key aspect of modeling that’s often lost on people who simulate more complex systems. For instance the thrust of a lot of protein-small molecule modeling is in determining or rationalizing the binding affinity between the protein and the small molecule. This is an important goal, but it’s often quite insufficient for understanding the ‘true’ binding affinity between the two components in the highly complex milieu of a cell, where other proteins, ions, cofactors and water jostle for attention with the small molecule. Thus, while modelers should indeed try to optimize the affinity of their small molecules for proteins, they should also try to understand how these calculations might translate to a more biological context.
  • Models should be calibrated carefully and the results presented with scrupulous honesty about their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
This is another aspect of theory and modeling that’s often lost in the din of communicating results that seem to make sense. The importance of training sets in validating models on known systems is well-understood, although even in this case the right kind of statistics isn’t always applied to get a real sense of the model’s behavior. But one of the simpler problems with training sets is that they are often incomplete and miss essential features that are rampant among the real world’s test sets (more pithily, all real cows as far as we know are non-spherical). This is where Pople’s point about presenting the strengths and weaknesses of models applies: if you are unsure how similar the test case is to the training set, let the experimentalists know about this limitation. Pople’s admonition also speaks to the more general one about always communicating the degree of confidence in a model to the experimentalists. Often even a crude assessment of this degree can help prioritize which experiments should be done and which ones should be best assessed against cost and implementation.
  • One should recognize the strengths as well as the weaknesses of other people's models and learn from them.
Here we are talking about plagiarism in the best sense of the tradition. It is key to be able to compare different methods and borrow from their strengths. But comparing methods is also important for another, more elemental reason: without proper comparison you might often be misled into thinking that your method actually works, and more importantly that it works because of a chain of causality embedded in the technique. But if a simpler method works as well as your technique, then perhaps your technique worked not because of but in spite of the causal chain that appears so logical to you. A case in point is the whole field of molecular dynamics: Ant Nicholls from OpenEye has made the argument that you can’t really trust MD as a robust and ‘real’ technique if simpler methods are giving you the answer (often faster).
  • If a model is worth implementing in software, it should be implemented in a way which is both efficient and easy to use. There is no point in creating models which are not useful to other chemists.
This should be an obvious point but it isn’t always one. One of the resounding truths in the entire field of modeling and simulation is that the best techniques are the ones which are readily accessible to other scientists and provided to them cheaply or free of cost. Gaussian itself is a good example – even today a single user license is offered for about $1500. Providing user-friendly graphical interfaces seems like a trivial corollary of this principle, but it can make a world of difference for non-specialists. The Schrodinger suite is an especially good example of user-friendly GUIs. Conversely, software for which a premium was charged died a slow death, simply because very few people could use, validate and improve it.

There do seem to be some exceptions to this rule. For instance the protein-modeling program Rosetta is still rather expensive for general industrial use. More importantly, Rosetta seems to be particularly user-unfriendly and is of greatest use to descendants of David Baker’s laboratory at the University of Washington. However the program has still seen some very notable successes, largely because the Baker tribe counts hundreds of accomplished people who are still very actively developing and using the program.

Notwithstanding such exceptions though, it seems almost inevitable in the age of open source software that only the easiest to use and cheapest programs will be widespread and successful, with lesser competitors culled in a ruthlessly Darwinian process.

A molecular modeler to his beloved (medicinal chemist)

With all apologies to W. B. Yeats


"I BRING you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams; 
White woman that passion has worn 
As the tide wears the dove-gray sands, 
And with heart more old than the horn         
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time: 
White woman with numberless dreams 
I bring you my passionate rhyme."


"I BRING you with reverent hands
Bioactive among my numberless conformations
Unstrained structures that my protein has worn
As the slide showcases the top-ranked ligands,
And with common sense more than docking score                             
That is scraped from the muddy waters of sampling
Ascendant among my numberless failures
You better now hand me my dime."

We need new models of popular physics communication

One of the issues I have with Steven Weinberg's list of 13 science books is that they showcase a very specific model of science writing - that of straight explanation and historical exposition. Isaac Asimov was very good at this model, so was George Gamow. Good science writing is of course supposed to be explanatory, but I think we have entered an age where other and more diverse forms of science writing have made a striking appearance. Straight, explanatory science will persist, but in my opinion the future belongs to these novel forms since they bring out the full range of the beauty and pitfalls of science as a quintessentially human endeavor. And since writing is only one form of inquiry, we also need to embrace other novel forms of communication such as poetry and drama.

Why do we need other models of science communication? The problem is best exemplified by popular physics and that is what I will be writing about here. As I have written earlier, one of the issues with today's popular physics writing is that it has sort of plateaued and reached a point of diminishing marginal returns: there are only so many ways in which you can write about relativity or quantum mechanics in a novel way. There are literally hundreds of books on these topics, and yet another volume that clearly explains the mysteries of quantum mechanics to the layman would not be especially enlightening.

Thus, among the most recent science books that buck this trend is one I have truly savored - Amanda Gefter's "Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn". The book breaks new ground by not just recycling cutting-edge facts about the universe but by presenting these facts engagingly in the form of a very charming memoir about a daughter and a father (disclaimer: although I know Amanda in real life I had been entranced by the book before I met her). Amanda's book is among the very best I know in the "scientific memoir" category, and the particular model that she has pursued in the book - that of a non-scientist determinedly and rewardingly threading her way through the evolution of her own scientific interests - is a very fruitful one which others should emulate.

There is also the more familiar model of the scientific memoir written by leading scientists themselves. The best instance of this that I have encountered is Freeman Dyson's "Disturbing the Universe" which combines a world-renowned scientist's way of thinking with a genuine literary flair. Very, very few people lie at the intersection of "highly accomplished scientist" and "highly accomplished writer", and Dyson fits the bill better than almost anyone else. There is also Laura Fermi's delightful "Atoms in the Family" that provides a rare glimpse into her husband Enrico's human side. Among the other physics/mathematics memoirs that I have truly enjoyed are Stanislaw Ulam's "Adventures of a Mathematician", Marc Kac's "Enigmas of Chance" and Emanuel Derman's unique and timely "My Life as a Quant". Also while we are on the subject of memoirs, a fictional memoir that projects great poignancy is Russell McCormmach's "Night Thoughts of A Classical Physicist" which vividly portrays the resignation of a classical physicist in the face of the destruction of deterministic physics by the indeterminism of quantum theory, even as the political landscape in Germany around him itself is mirroring this destruction.

What I find most striking though is a model of science writing in which science intertwines seamlessly with fiction. I am not talking about science fiction here of which there is plenty - instead I am referring to volumes that explain science through fictional devices and characters. This genre is often called 'scientific fiction' to distinguish it from science fiction. One of the best examples of this style that I know concerns two of mathematician John Casti's books. "The Cambridge Quintet" is a work of scientific fiction that brings five leading thinkers - C. P. Snow, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrodinger and J. B. S. Haldane - together at Snow's residence for a dinner conversation on artificial intelligence. The other book titled "The One True Platonic Heaven" pits a similar set of fictional but plausible conversations between the brilliant minds at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, this time on epistemology and the limits of scientific knowledge. Both books are gems and deserve a wider audience. 

Another set of fictional conversations between the founders of quantum mechanics is vividly captured by Louisa Gilder's book "The Age of Entanglement". The book is somewhat unfair to Robert Oppenheimer, but otherwise it's unique. And among more recent volumes, one that I have thoroughly enjoyed is Tasneem Zehra's Husain's delightful "Only the Longest Threads" which explores the origins and philosophy of modern physics in the form of letters between two protagonists set against the background of the discovery of the Higgs boson. The book provides a particularly charming example of the human face of science and the beauty of scientific ideas. However, if animals seem more charming to you than human beings, I would recommend two of Chad Orzel's books, one in which he pitches relativity to his dog and another in which the dog has to be at the receiving end of the mind-bending paradoxes of quantum theory.

Then there are the truly fictional works of science enshrined in the form of plays, poetry and even an opera. The opera is "Doctor Atomic" and it's quite unique - I can never get the image of actor Gerald Finley singing John Donne's "Batter my heart, three person'd God" in his baritone voice out of my mind. My earliest exposure to science in the form of fiction though was through Michael Frayn's wonderful "Copenhagen" which charts an imagined set of conversations between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg during a real encounter between the two in September 1941. Frayn's writing is often poetic and he brings out the parallels between principles from physics and the mysteries of human nature without venturing into New Age territory. Another sparkling play along the same lines is Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" which explores the beguiling paradoxes of time and thermodynamics. And speaking of time, nothing I know - absolutely nothing - surpasses the sheer lyrical prose and wondrous temporal constructions in Alan Lightman's "Einstein's Dreams".

Ultimately as we know, a picture is worth a thousand words, so we cannot depart from this brief overview of novel forms of physics communication without mentioning the graphic novel. My favorite is probably "Logicomix" which describes Bertrand Russell's obsessive quest for mathematical truth. Then there is the literally scintillating "Radioactive" which brings Marie and Pierre Curie's love and science to life in truly creative graphical form. Jim Ottaviani has been a particularly prominent proponent of embodying physics in comic book form, and among his creations are my favorites "Feynman" and "Suspended in Science". Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's "Trinity" which is about the first atomic bomb test is also definitely worth your time. In one panel graphic novels can sometimes convey the reality of science as a human endeavor more powerfully than entire paragraphs, and I have little doubt that this medium will continue to serve as a potent form of science writing.

This little tour of the myriad faces of popular physics - physics as poetry, physics as drama, physics as fiction, physics as comic characters - brings out the sheer diversity of incarnations that the story of physics and its practitioners can adopt when being narrated to a wide audience. Together they speak to the nature of physics as something real done by real human beings. The image of popular physics as a set of explanations of the wonders of the cosmos communicated through explanatory writing is a valid one, but there is so much to be gained by embedding this image amidst a kaleidoscopic variety of other forms of science communication. It's something we can all look forward to.

Note: As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I became aware of a post by Chad Orzel on Forbes documenting similar novel forms of science writing. Gratifyingly we both seem to hit on some of the same themes.

If computational recipes were like food recipes...

...the menu at Boston's elegant L'Espalier might look something like this.

Maine beef tenderloin: Carrot tagliatelle al ragù, gorgonzola mornay, sunny side up quail egg, crispy shallots

10 ns molecular dynamics run: Replica exchange, orthorhombic box, embedded sodium ions, 1 fs time step, Nose-Hoover thermostat. Happy water molecules. Smooth trajectory.

West Coast King salmon, lightly smoked, with vanilla and cardamom: faux hazelnut gnocchi and pumpkin juice

New England Induced-fit Docking protocol: Braised loop resampling, 5A residue movement, multicore run with threading. Optional polarized force field (add 10 tokens). Error bars.

Honey glazed duck for two with roasted pumpkin, chestnut, foie jus, smoked chocolate puree and toasted nuts and seeds (add 20)

Multi-ligand conformer search: Seared 10 kcal/mol energy window. Glazed harmonic potential. Monte-Carlo dihedral drive (add 20 tokens). Experimental infusion.

Licorice glazed Hudson Valley foie gras with black trumpet mushrooms, hay ash roasted banana, black sesame and almond-rice milk.

Similarity search: Shape-based scaffold hopper, optionally paired with electrostatics. Statistically validated (add 50 tokens). 

There's a reason they're called computational "recipes".

Top 10 popular chemistry books for the general reader

An aerogel, one of the wonders of modern chemistry
described by Mark Miodownik in "Stuff Matters"
Steven Weinberg - with whom I once had the great pleasure of sharing a panel on 'Big Science' - has noted a list of 13 of his favorite science books for the general reader in an interview with The Guardian. It's a perfectly respectable list (and it includes my all-time favorite book) although it suffers from a few issues, such as being more historically oriented and not being broad enough. 

But as usual, the other big limitation of the list is that it contains no chemistry books. This wouldn't be the first time a popular science list has excluded chemistry - chemistry is the black sheep of the sciences when it comes to popular writing, even though modern life would be unimaginable without it, as would the puzzle of the origin of life. Given Weinberg's physics background this is somewhat understandable and it's his personal list after all. However I thought I would add my two cents to the discussion by offering my own modest list of chemical titles which I think would delight and inform the general reader, along with some biomedical research sprinkled in. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

1. Oliver Sacks - "Uncle Tungsten": Oliver Sacks recently wrote a wonderful and poignant editorial in the NYT about his imminent fate, but the good doctor should rest supremely assured. All his writings are memorable and will live on forever, and none so much in my opinion as his delightful romp through the wonders of chemistry as a child narrated in "Uncle Tungsten". I myself grew up experimenting with hazardous chemicals, and so this book resonated with me like few others. The book is a paean not just to the magical world of chemistry as explored by a young and receptive mind but also to a nostalgic and charming time when one could buy a pound of each alkali metal from a hardware store and drop it in a lake to see what happens (as Sacks did).

2. Deborah Blum - "The Poisoner's Handbook": This volume is a riveting account of the sinister side of chemistry, and of human nature in general, as it manifested itself in the heyday of New York City during the Jazz Age. Blum is exceedingly accomplished at bringing out the devious motives of poisoners as they exploited the unique chemistry of each poisoning, and she is also very adept at chronicling the rise of forensic science as it pitted science against murder. Thankfully science has largely won that fight - Blum tells us how. If there's any doubt about how chemistry can come alive and impact society in the most consequential and personal ways, this book should dispel that doubt.

3. Natalie Angier - "Natural Obsessions": Angier's book is a rare example of an underexploited and revealing science genre; what one might call "fly on the wall science". In this case the particular wall belongs to the laboratory of Robert Weinberg at MIT. Weinberg is one of the most important cancer researchers of the past fifty years and his lab has discovered many of the most important genes and biochemical pathways involved in the spread of this diabolical disease. Angier does a really great job of documenting the everyday struggles, passions, pitfalls, blind alleys and triumphs of basic research. Science done by human beings, with all its warts and glories.

4. Barry Werth - "The Billion Dollar Molecule": Another true fly on the wall account, Barry Werth's book would get anyone interested in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of drug discovery and biotech research. It is quite definitely the best and only book I know in which a probing, highly articulate writer was allowed virtually untrammeled access to the secret world of cutting-edge research carried out by a major, upcoming company (Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Werth's prose is breathless, vivid and Promethean and makes the scientists at Vertex alternatively look like Gods descended from Olympus and rock stars at Woodstock. While he takes some poetic license, nowhere else have I seen the real world of highly risky and lucrative drug research and the sheer passion of industrial scientists described with such loving care and attention to detail. A must read, along with its less stratospheric but still readable sequel.

5. Philip Ball - "H2O: A Biography of Water": If I had to single out one writer who consistently produces highly readable books on popular chemistry it would be Phil Ball. Phil has written many excellent books on the world of molecules and his writing covers a remarkable range of topics - from Paracelsus to Chartres Cathedral - but in my opinion none bridges the mundane and the profound as well as his book on that most beguiling, commonplace and enigmatic of substances - water. Phil explores an astounding range of phenomena in which water plays a key role, from the water cycle in glaciers to water in outer space to water at the molecular level in the human body. There is also a great chapter on what Irving Langmuir called "pathological science" which describes in gory detail the polywater controversy. This book is a must have on the shelf of anyone interested in popular chemistry.

6. Sam Kean - "The Disappearing Spoon": Just when I thought that popular chemistry books would not become runaway bestsellers, along came Sam Kean with his chronicle of the fun, swashbuckling and sometimes morbid stories associated with the discovery of key elements. Kean focuses mainly on radioactive elements but he also has delightful chapters on other ubiquitous elements like gallium - which is the subject of the title of the book.

7. S. Venetsky - "Tales about Metals" and "On Rare and Scattered Metals": Speaking of elements, one of the delights of growing up in the 90s was the sudden access to hitherto unavailable literary and scientific gems from one of the former Soviet Union's leading scientific publishing companies, Mir Publishers. I discovered Venetsky's wonderful elemental romp through commonplace but still fascinating metals like gold, tungsten and molybdenum in an old used bookstore as a teenager and was stricken. Venetsky is an absolute delight especially when describing the role of coinage metals like copper and gold in history, and his writings are also liberally sprinkled with myths about these chemical wonders as well as descriptions of uses of elements such as 'rare' earth metals in everyday applications like electronics. Venetsky's book is one of those books which would make any boy or girl grow up to be a chemist.

8. Patrick Coffey - "Cathedrals of Science": Biographies of physicists abound but those of chemists are rare. That is why Coffey's book on the epic lives and rivalries of chemists Gilbert Newton Lewis and Irving Langmuir is very much worth a read. Lewis and Langmuir were both the torchbearers of American chemistry during the 1920s, and both made foundational contributions to the discipline. Coffey is at his best while describing their discoveries and the apportioning of credit for those discoveries that became a sticking point between them, their students and colleagues, many of whom included luminaries like Linus Pauling, Walther Nernst and Svante Arrhenius. A great example of the story of science as a quintessentially human endeavor.

9. Roald Hoffmann - "Roald Hoffmann on the Philosophy, Art and Science of Chemistry": Roald Hoffmann is one of those very few Renaissance Men of science who have won a Nobel Prize, written plays and popular books and contributed original ideas to the philosophy of their discipline.  I reviewed this collection of essays by Hoffmann for 'Nature Chemistry' last year. As I describe in that review, Hoffmann is especially adept at telling us how chemistry creates its own emergent philosophy which unmoors itself from its reductionist roots in physics. The book would be worthwhile for this discussion alone, but it also has splendid chapters mulling over the meaning of beauty and elegance in chemistry and the complex face of chemistry when it impacts the environment. A unique contribution.

10. Mark Miodownik - "Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape our Man-Made world": One of the perpetual complaints that chemists have is that when it comes to popular chemistry, somehow the public manages to achieve the contradictory feat of appreciating chemistry's ubiquitous presence in our everyday life while at the same time completely missing the excitement in the discipline. Mark Miodownik's wonderful new book handily bridges this gap. In a series of revealing chapters dedicated to a range of substances, from the exotic (aerogels) to the utterly mundane and commonplace (concrete), Miodownik brings materials science to life. Imagine writing a book about concrete that treats the substance with the same kind of fascination and wonder that one might treat kryptonium, and you get an idea of what Miodownik's book is like. In one sentence, a role model for what popular chemistry writing should be like.

In drug discovery, what counts is asking the right question

The other day I was having a discussion with a colleague about the drug Velcade which has been used quite successfully to treat multiple myeloma. Velcade is probably the only bestselling drug that has the element boron in it. Boron is a highly reactive element that had never been seen in drugs before. If you had shown the structure of velcade to a chemist fifteen years ago he or she would not have touched it with a fifty-foot pole and instead placed a call to the nearest mental asylum. But that’s not all of it. Velcade jams up the proteasome, the protein machine in our body which is essentially the body’s garbage can. So now you have a drug that looks toxic gumming up the body’s garbage can…which is supposed to get rid of toxic proteins and other junk. Most people would have been forgiven if fifteen years ago they had called velcade not “boronic” but “moronic”.

And yet here we are with the first big drug containing boron which works well; which is prescribed to hundreds of thousands of people suffering from a deadly disease; which has saved thousands of lives.

The velcade story is certainly one of dogged persistence and of countering the prevailing wisdom. But it also illustrates a bigger point which is true of science in general but of drug discovery in particular: In drug discovery, what really matters is asking the right question and finding the right problem. The answers matter of course and we have to find them, but without the right problem having the solution around won’t matter one bit. Boron-containing drugs are not going to work for every target or every ailment. And yet there is one particular target (the proteasome) and one ailment (multiple myeloma) which pose the right question for which an answer exists in the form of a boronic drug.

This theme is repeated in drug discovery all the time, especially regarding paradigms which were thought to be impossible. Nobody thought boron-containing drugs would make it, but it turned out that what we lacked was the right question for which they would provide the answer. Nobody thought that kinase inhibitors would be selective and non-toxic, and yet we found particular chemical structures that worked extremely well for particular protein targets. Nobody thought that a crazy-looking chemical structure like metformin that defied every "rule" of druglike behavior would ever become a drug, and yet metformin is today raking in millions and medicating diabetes patients on a daily basis.

And the beat goes on. As another recent example, covalent drugs were thought to be a huge liability until we discovered unique, non-conserved reactive amino acid residues on important target proteins that could be targeted by such drugs. One of them was even sold for an unprecedented $21 billion a few months ago. Just like covalent drugs and metformin, there are many other paradigms which changed people’s thinking, but the real reason they did so is because someone always thought of the right nail which would benefit from the precise application of that particular hammer.

The other day I was reading an interview with Bob Langer in which he said that the key element in transitioning from a graduate student or postdoc to an independent researcher is to switch from giving the right answers to asking the right questions. He is absolutely right, and it seems to me that this is something that people don’t always realize in drug discovery as well. In fact one might ascribe the several failures of the field over the last few decades to the zeal of those who kept on insisting that they had the right answers (high-throughput screening, combinatorial chemistry, molecular modeling,, structure-based drug design) when what they should have been doing was asking the right questions. It’s not that these tools are useless, it’s that they don’t work unless you have the right problem in front of you that would truly benefit from their application. In fact one factor which distinguishes a good drug discovery scientist from a bad one is the ability to identify the right problem for which a particular approach shows the most promise. One might call it the “pairing up problem”.

Structure-based drug design is a good example of how the pairing-up problem can be fruitfully resolved. Companies like Vertex and Merck pushed structure-based design mightily in the 80s and 90s. The limitations of the approach were quickly (although as some might argue, not quickly enough...) realized, but its application to select targets like carbonic anhydrase and HIV protease in particular yielded some spectacular results. Structure-based design was certainly not a panacea, but it was a solution looking for the right problem. Once the right question was asked the method could be productively used. It continues to improve and wander the wilderness of biological space, looking for apt suitors.

The pairing-up problem is why we always need to recognize the limitations of "rules" about druglike properties and metrics: there are always exceptions falling outside the parameter space of these rules that can be used if we find the right problems for them. The pairing-up problem is also why I am optimistic about many new potential technologies and ideas in drug discovery, from slow-binding inhibitors to nanoparticle drug delivery to genomics. None of these are going to likely revolutionize the field wholesale overnight and many of them have been oversold, but all of them are looking for the right questions for which they would be the right answers. The exciting thing is that the questions are almost certainly there; it’s up to us to ask them.

Image link: Bonus gift of two posts in one! SeeArrOh reminds me that there are some very unhappy bonds and atoms in that stock photo above. As punishment for not noticing this I have decided to spend a day in the lab and make one of those molecules...

Update: I was hounded out of the lab and declared persona non grata for having the unbridled temerity to even step foot in it.

"In surprise advance announcement, 2013 Nobel Prize in physics awarded to Higgs boson"

In honor of April Fool's day I am posting an old post from Scientific American which I wrote not on April 1st but on September 30th, a few days before the announcement of the Nobel Prize awarded that year for the prediction of the Higgs Boson. The post was an interesting social experiment. First Sci Am panicked and took it down. They put it back up again after I agreed to include a note at the end explaining that it was a spoof (I thought any reasonable person who read it would have realized this by about the third paragraph). As comments on the post indicate, some commenters fretted and fumed but many others were appropriately mirthful.

In a stunning and premature decision that is a first in the 113 year history of the august institution, the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm today announced the awarding of the 2013 Nobel prize for Physics to the Higgs Boson. Originally scheduled for October 8, the announcement instead came more than a week in advance. The change in date was guarded with the same secrecy that has always guarded the nominations for the coveted prize. The award has sparked immediate and intense controversy and speculation, both because of its premature announcement and because of the highly unconventional nature of the recipient.

According to Prof. Lars Brink, the chairman of the Nobel physics committee, the decision was driven by a simple reason: to quell the rancorous feelings regarding division of credit and authorship that have suffused the scientific community ever since the particle was discovered in July last year. “We were startled and depressed by how personal the controversy got after last year’s discovery of the boson”, remarked Prof. Brink. “Instead of focusing on the finding itself – which was unanimously regarded as a long sought after breakthrough – both scientists and the media got obsessed with who should deserve the credit, whether one, two, four or six people should win the prize. We found that the beautiful discipline of physics was being torn apart by this constant bickering. It was no longer about the science, it was a beauty contest.”

Confronted with the impossible task of deciding who exactly to award the prize – a decision that would have been controversial regardless of its outcome – and distraught by the incessant obsession with people instead of particles, the committee took the radical but well-considered step of omitting human beings from the prize altogether. “The decision was grueling, but we thought about it a long time and finally reached a consensus. We said, look, it’s not really about the theorists or the experimentalists, it’s really about the particle; this fundamental, all-encompassing particle that underpins the very existence of matter”, explained Prof. Lars Bergstrom, a member of the committee and a particle physicist himself. “Nobody denies the tremendous efforts and creativity contributed by the scientists and engineers who predicted the particle and built the LHC. But since the real hero of the story is the boson itself, why not take human beings out of the equation altogether? We therefore decided to honor the one thing that really matters in this whole story”.

By no means was the radical departure from tradition an easy task; one member of the committee who chose to remain anonymous disclosed that the interminable late-night sessions, shouting matches and the unprecedented interruption of a proud and flawed human decision process by an objective, dispassionate analysis had forced her to see a therapist. Another member confided that “While I realize that science is a very human process, in this case it has been the ‘human’ part of it that has really driven me up the wall.”

The Higgs boson thus becomes the first particle, and the first non-human entity, to be awarded the Nobel Prize in any field. Since interviews with the particle could not be held for obvious reasons, the media was instead shown a graph displaying a bump supposed to indicate its existence. A member of CERN’s PR division also wore a large, squishy Higgs costume, doing his best to mimic the behavior of the fleeting particle as he whizzed from one end of the room to another, hid and emerged from behind a curtain and breathlessly answered questions about gauge symmetry and vacuum fluctuations. Reporters were also treated to a video showing the kind of particle collision that produces the Higgs; however since the effect is statistical, no one can be sure that that particular collision has anything whatever to do with the breakthrough.

The seven human candidates (five theorists and two experimentalists) have had mixed reactions to the surprise announcement. Dr. Peter Higgs who had the most invested in the discovery had the following to say: “I am very happy for my namesake boson. I am very happy that it has been recognized for this singular honor. I agree that it’s not about the people, it’s about the science, and I humbly submit….DAMN IT, I should have won that damn prize”. Others took a more philosophical view. A leading scientist on the experimental team mused out loud, “When I think about it, I realize that we are no more than particles and fields ourselves in this endless and accelerating cosmos. The great black hole at the center of the galaxy beckons us in the spirit of Ulysses’s sirens, and our minds are being seduced and ravaged at this very moment by the very guts of the cosmic leviathan…”. At this point the glassy-eyed scientist was quickly ushered into a waiting car by some family members.

The awarding of the prize to the boson has also made it difficult to nominate a speaker for the traditional Nobel lecture in December. After another round of votes, the decision was taken to simply leave the stage empty for an hour and let the all-pervasive Higgs field around us do the talking. According to Prof. Brink, “During this one-hour period, the audience will be asked to maintain complete silence, close their eyes, and try to imagine how the Higgs bosons in their brains give rise to neural signals that generate thoughts of envy, lust and disappointment. A better tribute to this remarkable particle will be hard to imagine.”

Note: In case it’s not clear, this post is supposed to be satirical and humorous. I don’t see the Nobel Prize being awarded to non-human entities anytime soon. Meanwhile, the brilliant men and women who further our understanding of life and the universe will continue to win well-deserved awards like the Nobel Prize. The real point of this post was to stress the fact – through satire – that what really matters are the discoveries themselves. As Richard Feynman put it after he received the award, “I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery….”