The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, the two researchers who dreamed up the Higgs boson, marking yet another year without a Nobel Prize for famed physicist Stephen Hawking. What gives?
The prerequisites for attaining one of science’s top honors are a bit more stringent than theose for getting an Oscar. Alfred Nobel’s will stipulates that the physics prize given in his name should go to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics.” Key words: “discovery or invention.” Even if you have a beautiful explanation for the way the world works, if there isn’t solid evidence to support your theory, no Nobel for you!
As a result, there can be significant lag time between the proposal of a beautiful theory in physics and the reward. It was nearly 50 years ago that Peter Higgs thought of a way to explain how the various little building blocks of matter attain mass. This unanswered question was one of the last pieces of the puzzle of the Standard Model of Physics. Without mass, all matter would act like photons, shooting off at the speed of light, making existence, let alone life, as we know it quite impossible. Higgs’ theory rested on the supposed existence of an as-yet undiscovered particle that originates from a field that permeates the whole universe.
But the Higgs field, and its attendant particle, the Higgs boson, remained elusive for several decades. It took the efforts of hundreds of scientists from around the world and the help of a massive machine buried underground that arranges head-on collisions between billions of protons, looking for the signal amongst the debris, to find the experimental evidence for the Higgs boson.
Last year, Hawking himself predicted that Higgs would get a Nobel Prize after the discovery at the Large Hadron Collider. And, in keeping with his habit of wagering on physics, he forked over $100 to University of Michigan physicist Gordon Kane. (Hawking had bet the Higgs would never be found.)
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Hawking has made light of his own lack of a Nobel medallion, but to the casual observer, it must seem like a tragedy. How can the author of “A Brief History of Time,” the guy that has worked out extensive blueprints for black holes, not have earned a Nobel Prize yet?
The problem lies in how much Hawking tends to gravitate towards stuff that’s difficult to prove, like reconciling quantum physics with general relativity using an extension of string theory called M-theory. M-theory posits that, among other things, there are 11 dimensions of space-time. However, certain kinds of energy, like light, are trapped in a three-dimensional space called a “brane.”
M-theory could prove to be the fabled “theory of everything” -- if it could be proven at all. But many scientists question whether it can be realistically tested at all. Some aspects of string theory are testable, but would require staggeringly high-powered equipment beyond our capabilities. There are a few aspects that might be within reach of our current technological capabilities. Scientists smashing protons at the LHC could eventually find Higgs-like particles that could validate the concept of supersymmetry, which is one of the essential foundations of string theory.
A more realistic vision of future Nobel laureate Stephen Hawking would probably stem from his work on black holes. It may be possible for the LHC to create tiny black holes, since when particles inside it collide, they’re carrying a lot of energy in a very tiny package. And thanks to mass-energy equivalence (Einstein’s classic E=mc^2 equation), we know that the greater the energy of a particle, the more massive it gets.
Once created, such a tiny black hole “would disappear in a puff of Hawking radiation — and I would get a Nobel Prize," Hawking joked at the Seattle Science Festival last summer, according to NBC.