Never before has a particle been so glamourised. Never before has a chase in pure science been so expensive. Never before has its success been so celebrated.
Yes, the God particle has been nabbed. At last. After almost half a century of its speculation. And almost two decades of setting traps for it. Period.
No, science, they say, is a never-ending journey. What better way to prove this aphorism than the aftermath of the detection of the much-sought-after particle? So long experts would have us believe that the detection would complete the construction of the so-called Standard Model, a melange of theories encapsulating the behaviour of all the known particles under all the known forces in this Universe. But now we are told the game has just begun.
The task ahead is to ascertain the attributes of the particle just detected. And to find out if it can resolve the biggest puzzle the cosmos has thrown before humanity in recent times — that of the Universe’s missing part. As much as 96 per cent of it is of unknown character; that is, not made of anything we know. The trillions of galaxies, stars, planets taken together are just four per cent of the stuff that makes up the Universe. That means what we don’t see is 24 times bigger compared to what we do. A disgrace indeed. If knowing the God particle better absolves us from that ignominy, that’ll be the ultimate triumph of all this endeavour.
Resolving that cosmic mystery may take years, even decades, given the arduous journey that preceded the detection of the God particle in the first place.
Meanwhile, an intriguing — or, should one say, irksome — problem bedevils an issue back home. The latest success, big as it is, will entail the biggest prize on this planet. And there are as many as seven contenders for the Nobel Prize. But who — or how many — among them will be on the receiving end of the phone call from Stockholm? That’s the million-dollar question now.
To untangle the fiasco one has to understand why physicists have been so keen to prove the God particle’s existence. It imparts mass to most of the other particles in the Universe. But for mass the cosmos would have been a place beyond recognition. Particles would flit around at the speed of light. Galaxies, stars, planets would not form. Life, including humans, would not evolve on the earth. To speculate a particle at the root of all this difference must have been a great intellectual leap.
But that was not provided by a single individual. The eight scientists who contributed to it are Phillip Anderson, Francois Englert, Robert Brout, Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, Thomas Kibble and Gerard ’t Hooft.
Among the eight Brout passed away last year, leaving the other seven in the fray.
Anderson and ’t Hooft have already won the Nobel Prize for other contributions.
Though there are precedents of multiple Nobel winners, it is unlikely that Anderson and ’t Hooft will be among them, now that there are five other deserving candidates as well. The Nobel is awarded to at most three experts in a subject in a year. Assuming that the Nobel committee won’t select recipients for the same feat over many years, who’ll be the chosen three among Englert, Higgs, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble?
The choice has been made difficult by the fact that they all published their theoretical researches in the celebrated journal Physical Review Letters (PRL) within two-and-a-half months in 1964. If the paper that was published first is to be rewarded, then Englert (his co-author Brout is dead) is the sole winner. But why ignore Higgs? Though he was the second to publish, his paper made the idea of the God particle crystal clear.
Also, it will be unfair to ignore Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble for being just a month late in publishing their work, and making the delay explicit by referring to the earlier articles in their own. They were just being honest. Writing a historical overview in the matter in 2009, Guralnik explained that they had no idea three other scientists were working on the same problem as them. “As we were literally placing the manuscript in the envelope to be sent to the Physical Review Letters, Kibble came into the office bearing the two papers: one by Higgs and the other by Englert and Brout,” wrote Guralnik.
“These had just arrived in the then very slow and unreliable (because of strikes) mail. We were very surprised and even amazed. We had no idea that there was any competing interest in the problem.”
According to Guralnik, after seeing the competing analyses, they thought that they should do the honest thing and reference them. “Our paper was finished and typed in final form when we saw these other works and made this decision,” wrote Guralnik. “Not a single thought or calculation was removed or added, nor was any change made but to the referencing in our manuscript as the result of Kibble having pointed out the existence of these new papers. In retrospect, I wish we had added the true statement — ‘after this paper was completed, related work by Englert, Brout and Higgs was brought to our notice.’
We were naive enough to feel that these other articles offered a threat to our insights or to the crediting of our contribution.”
Should Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble be deprived of the honour for being honest?