Will Peter Higgs Live Long Enough to Get His Nobel?

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By David Henry

Theoretical physicists think a lot about the nature of time -- it's part of the job description. This week their work also raises questions about the nature of justice.

Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old U.K. physicist who in the 1960s postulated the existence of a subatomic particle that gives matter its mass, was hailed in the scientific community after his theory, developed with several other scientists, was proved almost beyond doubt. Thousands of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, could hardly contain their excitement at the likely detection of the "Higgs boson," the biggest discovery in physics in at least 40 years. Higgs said he never thought he would see it in his lifetime.

Stephen Hawking, the retired Cambridge University professor and the author of "A Brief History of Time," told the BBC in an interview this week that Higgs should be awarded the Nobel Prize. But he didn't mention that there is usually a lag of at least a decade, and sometimes two, between the discovery and the award. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wants to be sure the new finding stands the test of time before it dispenses its praise. So Higgs had better stay healthy if he -- along with any of his collaborators -- is to receive his medal in Stockholm and collect the cash prize, which is set at 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million) in 2012.

The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded to people who make pioneering discoveries and ground-breaking inventions. Those people also have to be alive: Since a change in the Nobel statutes in 1974, a prize can only be awarded posthumously if the selected recipient dies after the winner has already been announced. Previously, the physicist could be honored after death if he or she was alive when nominated, sometimes many years earlier. Nobody has ever won a posthumous Nobel Prize in Physics.

It will be a few years before CERN physicists in Geneva and elsewhere can identify the exact properties of the particle they have just glimpsed on their subterranean detectors. Only when the boson is formally recognized as the one Peter Higgs proposed five decades ago will the clock start ticking in Stockholm. To ensure that justice stands the test of time, the Nobel Foundation should consider reinstating rules that allow posthumous awards to nominees. Otherwise Peter Higgs may never receive the accolades he almost certainly deserves.

(David Henry is a Frankfurt-based editor for Bloomberg View.)

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-0- Jul/06/2012 16:52 GMT