STOCKHOLM — The Nobel Prize judges delayed the announcement of this year’s winner for physics by an hour Tuesday — but they can’t say why for 50 years.
Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the 2013 award for their theory about how subatomic particles acquire mass.
The theoretical physicists suggested that an invisible ocean of energy suffusing space is responsible for the mass and diversity of the particles in the universe. Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and Englert, 80, from the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, will split a prize of $1.2 million, to be awarded in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Their theory, elucidated in 1964, sent physicists on a generation-long search for a telltale particle known as the Higgs boson, or the God particle. The chase culminated in July 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland.
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The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said the prize was “for the discovery of the mechanism that contributes to understanding the origin of the mass of subatomic particles.”
But Tuesday’s delay offered a window onto the secretive Nobel process and the complicated task of rewarding no more than three people when a discovery is claimed by many more.
Each prize — medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics — has its own prize committee. Those panels receive up to hundreds of submissions each year from people with nomination rights. For physics, they include professors at selected universities, previous laureates and the 615 members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The academy’s six-member Nobel Committee for physics spends months investigating each year’s nominations with the help of specially appointed experts. The committee then recommends up to three winners, who must be formally approved by the full academy in a majority vote on the day of the announcement, which is normally in October.
The Nobel announcements are delivered right on schedule most of the time. If they are late, it’s rarely by as much as an hour. In 2008, the physics judges missed their deadline by a half-hour and the chemistry committee had a more than one-hour delay in 1990.
Academy members don’t want to say why because their deliberations are supposed to be kept secret for 50 years — one of the many peculiarities of the Nobel process.
The academy’s permanent secretary, Staffan Normark, said the academy met Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. in Stockholm, 2 hours and 15 minutes before the scheduled announcement, but the discussions took longer than expected.
“It takes time. This is one of the biggest prizes,” he said. “There were many people who had a lot to say.” He also said the academy couldn’t reach Higgs, one of the winners, before the announcement, but wouldn’t say whether that’s what caused the delay.
Many scientific discoveries are group efforts but a Nobel Prize can be shared by no more than three people, according to the Nobel statutes. So deciding who has made the most significant contribution can be difficult.
Many outside experts had speculated that Higgs and Englert would win this year’s prize, but some had thought the committee would also include someone from the CERN laboratory in Geneva. That’s where the particle that Higgs and Englert had predicted in their theories was actually discovered last year. The problem was that thousands of scientists were involved in those CERN experiments.
The notion of this energy ocean, now known as the Higgs field, arose in three papers published independently in 1964. One was by Higgs. Another was by Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011. The third paper was by Tom Kibble, of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen, of the University of Rochester; and Gerald Guralnik, of Brown University. It came last and its authors have struggled to get recognition. Last week Hagen allowed that he had little expectations for today, and he was right.
R. Sekhar Chivukula, a Michigan State professor who chaired a committee that awarded the American Physical Society’s prestigious Sakurai prize to all six of the theorists in 2010, called the failure by the Nobel committee to recognize the work of Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik “a significant oversight.”
Academy officials wouldn’t say why they left out CERN or its scientists, sticking to their tradition of only talking about those who won.
At least for the next 50 years.