The 2013 Nobel Prize in physics will be announced next week, and while the identity of the winner (or winners) is a closely guarded secret, some are speculating the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson particle could be a top contender.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is expected to announce the winner of the physics prize on Oct. 8 in Stockholm. In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest atom smasher, reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson.
The high-profile discovery of the Higgs, an elementary particle believed to be associated with a field responsible for explaining how other particles get their mass, was confirmed the following year, and represented the final piece of the puzzle predicted by the Standard Model, the reigning theory of particle physics. [In Photos: Search for the Higgs Boson]
But the search for the Higgs boson began decades ago, and it is the work of several pioneering scientists who theorized the elementary particle that may capture the attention of the Nobel committee this year.
Should the Higgs be honored?
Early predictions suggest this year's Nobel Prize in physics could be shared by Peter Higgs, of the United Kingdom, and François Englert, of Belgium, two of the scientists who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson nearly 50 years ago.
"It is a remarkable story that these people hypothesized a new particle based upon simplicity and mathematical consistency, and it turned out to be what nature predicted," said Jacob Wacker, an assistant professor of particle physics and astrophysics at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a particle physics facility operated by Stanford University in Menlo Park, Calif.
Englert and Higgs were among the first scientists to publish research on the topic, but they were not the only ones who had a hand in the Higgs boson's beginning.
In August 1964, Robert Brout and Englert, both from the Free University of Brussels, published landmark research on the theory of particle masses. A month later, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. The proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.
In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.
Research from all six scientists helped spur the search for the Higgs boson, but their contributions also raise tricky questions about who can — and should — claim credit.
Following the rules
The Nobel committee's rules dictate that for science prizes, no more than three individuals can share the honor. Furthermore, the awards cannot be given posthumously, which removes Brout, who died in 2011, from contention.
Englert and Brout were the first to publish research on the Higgs field and the theory of particle masses, so the Nobel should be awarded to the surviving member of the research duo, Wacker told LiveScience. Also, since the 2012 discovery confirmed the particle that was first proposed by Higgs, the British physicist should share the honor, he added.
In their annual Nobel Prize predictions, Thomson Reuters named Englert and Higgs as likely recipients of the prize this year. David Pendlebury, Thomson Reuters' citation analyst, predicts winners based on their perceived clout within the scientific community. To do this, he measures the frequency with which a scientist's published work is cited by other researchers. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]
Pendlebury's analysis revealed the papers by Brout, Englert and Higgs were cited more often than the others involved with the particle's discovery. Since 2002, Pendlebury's predictions have accurately forecast 27 Nobel Prize winners.
"Because we are using citations as a reflection of what the scientific community feels is most important, then the choice for us is Englert and Higgs," Pendlebury told LiveScience. "Brout is no longer alive, otherwise he would be the third. That's how we split the difference, but it will be very interesting to see how the Nobel committee navigates the question."
A break with tradition?
Typically, Nobel Prizes are not awarded so soon after a discovery, but Pendlebury said he would be surprised and disappointed if the committee members could not find adequate reasons to shorten that time frame.
"Englert and Higgs are in their 80s, and that could be a consideration since the awards cannot be made posthumously," he explained. "I think people feel this discovery, in some ways, is a capstone of the Standard Model. I think there would be universal regret if the achievement were not recognized appropriately."
Also of consideration is whether the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson last year should share the accolade. So far, the Nobel committee has awarded science prizes exclusively to individuals and not organizations, unlike the Nobel Peace Prize, which has been awarded to several organizations in the past.
"I'm not bold enough to give advice to the Nobel committee about how to handle their own prize," Pendlebury said. "It has crossed my mind, though. I have wondered whether a Nobel committee would break its own rules and traditions. Could the prize be for Englert, Higgs and CERN as an institution? I very much doubt it, but I've been wrong before and I could be wrong again."