Politics of the 'God particle'

You probably heard it somewhere yesterday, certainly by this morning, that scientists at the supercollider in Geneva are 99.99994% sure they have identified "Higgs boson," the so-called "God particle." If nothing else one should appreciate that identifying this subatomic particle is important because it theoretically accounts for mass in the Universe, and therefore for the Universe itself.

But I find myself interested in this God particle on two levels; one purely scientific, the other political.

As Amit Chaudhuri explained the situation in the Brisbane Times, there is some question among physicists about how much credit is rightly due Peter Higgs, the renown 83-year-old theorist at Edinburgh University. Some physicists, Chaudhuri among them, think American physicist Phillip Anderson has been shortchanged. And still others empathize with the plight of Gerald Guralnick, Dick Hagan and Tom Kibble who have been totally ignored in discussions about a Nobel in the field of mass generation.

Scientifically speaking, Higgs boson is a hypothetical elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that accounts for mass in the Universe. Higgs is credited with the theory that mass generation comes with a "signature particle: a massive boson." The study of mass generation became a crucial task of physicists during the early Sixties in quest of the origin of mass as a property of matter. The so-called "Higgs mechanism" asserts "a field that interacts with particles to endow them with mass," according to Alan Boyle at cosmiclog.msn.com. Otherwise,"by all rights, all particles should be without mass..."

I found two interesting analogies for how this may work. The first involves imagining a party where ordinary partygoers are roaming about freely until a celebrity walks in. Then, suddenly, there is a clot of people around the celebrity; and the clot moves with the celebrity, attaining and maintaining its own momentum. In this scenario the ordinary partygoers are like massless particles, the norm. The celebrity represents that rare particle that possesses mass and endows other particles with mass. The second analogy requires imagining a tray with ping pong balls on it. The balls roll about freely until a layer of sugar is applied to the surface of the tray. Then, suddenly, an "inertial drag" is created. If the Higgs mechanism is conceived as a "field," the layer of sugar could be that field, placing a drag on the ping pong balls, i.e., particles with mass.

The political aspect of this begins with the fact that Anderson had suggested such a theory in 1962, two years before Higgs published on the subject. Anderson's failure seems to have been that he did not develop an "explicit relativistic model." Higgs did. As a separate matter, Ian Sample of the Guardian has been reporting on the Guralink-Hagan-Kibble dilemma since August 2010 when Nature "carried news of a dust-up over who should get the credit for the mass-giving theory that has ended up with Higgs' name." The issue here is only three scientists will be considered for a Nobel while there are six who claim credit for proposing the theory in 1964. Francois Englert and Robert Brout published first, about mass generation, August 31. Higgs published twice in the space of 34 days, September 15 and October 19, specifying the "signature particle" concept. Guralink, Hagan and Kibble published November 16, apparently independent of the prior works.

That's four significant papers on mass generation in the space of three months. But the GHK faction was clearly the last to publish and is likely to continue being ignored in Nobel conversations. As for Phillip Anderson, apparently there is some movement afoot to start calling the Higgs particle the "Anderson-Higgs boson." Of course Anderson is already a Nobel laureate. Maybe for him all this is petty. It's easy to be noble when you've already got a Nobel.

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