Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Some thoughts on the Nobel Prize

One of the dangers of working in a scientific field is becoming short-sighted, and thinking that it is automatically the most important area of research.  That is something I think many of us in the particle physics community have been guilty of with regards to the Nobel Prize in Physics this year.  The discovery of a Higgs-like particle at the LHC has been of great significance to us.  It justifies the construction of the LHC, meets the predictions of almost fifty years and opens new doorways to future physics.  For most of us, the only question was how the Nobel committee would resolve the problem of too many candidates; do you award it to the experimental collaborations?  Who among them?  What about the theorists; it's now properly recognised that in addition to Peter Higgs, several other people offered essential insights to the theoretical framework of the "Higgs mechanism".

Of course, the committee resolved this issue by giving the prize to a different field of physics, quantum optics.

One reason for doing this is the natural conservatism of the Nobel Prizes.  It is normal for awards to be given many years after the work was done, as this allows us to properly judge its scientific importance.  In this context, we might yet see a Higgs award in a few years' time.  Beyond this, however, the work that won the award is worthy of it; at least, that's how I see it from the outside.  The research of Wineland and Haroche has both pure theoretical interest, leading to new probes of quantum mechanics; and practical applications, such as more precise atomic clocks.  Note that better timekeeping is hardly an idle interest, either; it has impacts on the accuracy of GPS-like systems and internet synchronicity and data transmission.

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