The Nobel Prize in Physics and What Is So Wrong About It

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today that the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics are Francois Englert and Peter Higgs. The prize goes for “”the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”.

Sean Carroll has a nice post on the Nobel Prize and I couldn’t agree more with him. One thing that is sure is that Englert and Higgs absolutely deserve the prize. However, as Sean argues, some facts about the Nobel Prize are really annoying.

First of all, the prize is limited to only 3 persons, which is not how science is done nowadays. Usually, there are many scientists that make contribution to a scientific discovery, both independently or in a collaboration. In particular case of the Higgs boson, seven physicists get the credit for its theoretical foundation.

Second, the limit for the number of prize winners and the fact that it can’t be awarded to organizations is especially bad for experimental scientists because experimental science usually involves even more people or whole institutions. The experimental confirmation of the Higgs boson is equally important to science as it is its theoretical foundation, and it involved nothing less than the most complex machine humans ever built – the LHC, in which thousands of scientists and engineers from all over the world collaborated on.

The Nobel Prize is a great way to honor and recognize when good science is done. But nevertheless, we should not focus on the prize itself. Richard Feynman gave a really nice speech when he received the Nobel Prize in 1965, and you can see what he thought of it in a video below. The real thing in any scientific discovery should be the “pleasure of finding the thing out“, and we should definitely “endeavor to honor what was actually accomplished, not just who gets the gold medals“.


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