The Higgs Boson is the most talked about possibility for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics. We'll know for sure on Tuesday by about 5:45 AM EST. But the Nobel Committee has surprised us many time in the past so there's no guarantee they'll go with (or actually "have gone with," considering the choice was made some time ago) the popular expectation.
There are, in fact, a few problems with awarding the Nobel for the Higgs.
Primarily, there's the issue of deciding who of the five living people most strongly associated with the particle would actually receive the award. In 2010, the American Physical Society awarded the Sakurai Prize to six potentially deserving Higgs Boson Laureates
alive at that time: Carl R. Hagen
, Francois Englert
, Gerald S. Guralnik
, Peter W. Higgs
, Robert Brout
and T.W.B. Kibble
. Brout has since passed away, leaving five deserving physicists.
An additional issue is whether one of the slots should be reserved for someone involved with actually discovering the Higgs at the LHC
Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to three people at a time, so at least two people will have to be left off the podium if the Higgs Boson wins this year. That may or may not be enough reason to put it off for a little while. After all, the work was done a long time ago, and someday there will be three or fewer physicists in the running.
Personally, I think that would be a HORRIBLE reason to postpone the prize, and I don't actually believe the Nobel committee would do such a thing. On the other hand, there may be other equally deserving prize winners that could take it this year. Here are a few possibilitiesExtrasolar Planets
- The most promising alternative I can think of is the discovery of planets in distant solar systems. From a physics-centric point of view, it's not as compelling as the Higgs Boson. But for humanity in general, I suspect the existence of distant planets, including some that are habitable, is a more compelling discovery. After all, the question of whether or not we're alone in the universe is one of the most significant issues conceivable. In other words, I think that if the people who choose the physics Nobel winners are mostly physicists themselves, the Higgs wins it. If they're mostly non-physicists, you can bet on extrasolar planets.Slowed and Stopped Light
- Slowing light to a crawl, and bringing it to a complete halt, is ridiculously cool and fascinating. It also looks to have lots of applications for communications, computation, and data storage. The phenomenon is more properly known and Electromagnetically Induced Transparency
. I have no doubt it will win a prize someday. If it does this year, one of the winners will be only the third woman Physics Nobel Laureate
ever - Lene Hau
of Harvard. Dark Matter
- I cross my fingers every year in the hope that one of my physicist heroes will win. In the 1970s, Vera Rubin
made the startling discovery that galaxies are much heavier than they should be, based on the matter we can actually see anyway. She weighed the galaxies by looking at the rate that stars at their outer edges orbited. Simple calculations showed that there must be more there than meets the eye. We still aren't sure what the extra stuff is, and that's why it's simply called dark matter
, but thanks to Rubin we're certain it's there. One hitch, with regard to the Nobel Prize, is that Rubin herself has in the past argued that the stars orbits may be too speedy not because of dark matter, but instead because Newton's laws of gravity break down at large distances. The fact that there's little support for this view, and that things like the Bullet Cluster
collision provide powerful support for the existence of dark matter, suggest the Rubin is out of step with her colleagues. How do you award a Nobel to a person who doesn't believe in the stuff that's the subject of the prize?Iron Superconductors
- The fortune tellers at Thompson Reuters
think that along with the Higgs and extrasolar planets, iron-based superconductors known as pnictides
have a good chance this year. The materials were first discovered back in 2006, and have been a hot topic in physics ever since. Personally, I think it's a bit early for pnictides. Until they become practical for use in commercial devices, I can't see the Nobel committee handing them the prize.
Among the others on the short list of physics Nobel candidates: Superheavy Element
s, Carbon Nanotubes
, Quark-Gluon Plasma
, Photonic Crystals
, LED Lasers
Let me know if anyone thinks I overlooked something else promising. (Just don't try suggesting cold fusion
- it ain't ever gonna happen.)