I was busy with some personal issues over the past few weeks, so I hadn’t even really been following the rampant speculation about the Nobel Prize for this year. Apparently a lot of people (including some of my colleagues) thought that the July discovery, at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] experiments ATLAS and CMS, of a new particle resembling the long-sought Higgs particle would generate a Nobel Prize in 2012 for Peter Higgs and for the other physicists who predicted the existence of such a particle.
Well, I never thought this notion was very plausible; I was confident it wouldn’t happen before 2013. And that is for several reasons.
The first and most important is that although the evidence that a new particle has been found is very strong, the evidence that it is a Higgs particle of some type (which I’ll describe below) is still only moderate. Personally, I’m convinced that the new particle is a Higgs particle, but that is based partly on the evidence from the data and partly on theoretical prejudice — on my knowledge of theoretical physics and of what the alternatives to the Higgs-particle interpretation of the data are. If I’m wrong, too bad for me, but no harm done. However, the Nobel Prize committee is making a permanent, irrevocable award for the history books, and the bar for evidence from the data alone should be very high. Now here’s the key point: by March 2013 at the latest, the data from all of 2012 will have been analyzed. The amount of data that will be available by then will be about three times as much as was available in July 2012 — enough to change the current moderate evidence to strong evidence, if in fact we’re dealing with a Higgs particle of some type. The Nobel Prize committee is surely well aware of this — that by next year the situation is likely to have qualitatively changed, with the evidence beyond controversy. So it makes sense to wait until 2013, when the case is likely to be closed. Continue reading
Just ask the Nobel Prize committee: is quantum physics some sort of speculative new science? (A smart educated woman asked me, just a week ago, `What do you think about that quantum physics stuff?’, as though it were in the same category as theories of consciousness, speculations about the origin of life, and string theory.) No way: it’s all over your computers and cell phones; it’s in many modern light bulbs; it’s the laser that reads the prices at the grocery store and your ticket at a concert; it’s the heart of the best timepieces and the eyes of the best microscopes; it’s what makes solids solid and liquids flow, and powers chemical reactions and radioactivity; it’s probably playing a big role in biology that we’re just starting to understand; and it’s sunshine and moonlight and the glowing auroras borealis and australis. It’s the foundation and fabric of your world.
And though it may be bizarre, it is by no means abstract. Maybe in the early 1930s one could still say it was abstract; but already for many decades particle physicists have passively observed individual particles, one at a time, behaving in quantum mechanical ways. Today scientists can control individual quantum objects, things whose behavior can only be predicted by accepting the odd rules and counter-intuitive implications of our quantum world. In particular, physicists have learned to capture and manipulate individual photons (particles of light), atoms, and ions (atoms with an electron removed or added, to make them electrically charged — see the Figure below.) It is for their work advancing these capabilities, making possible new classes of experiments and opening up the potential for new technologies, that Serge Haroche and David Wineland have won the Nobel Prize for 2012. Read about it here (brief press release or summary for non-technical readers)… using your preferred quantum-mechanical device.
Light emitted from three individual ions of Beryllium, trapped and held in place for an extended period of time. (National Institute of Standards and Technology image gallery.)