Field of Science

"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….”

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