maandag 1 april 2013

Over the top, into the abyss, Faust revisited

In 1971 Gerard ’t Hooft published his article ‘Renormalizable Lagrangians for Massive Yang-Mills Fields’. The article, building on research initiated by Martinus Veltman, won them the 1999 Noble Prize in Physics. It established the Standard Model of elementary particles and fields as a quantitative theory, a realization of a renormalizable relativistic quantumfieldtheory. The success of the Standard Model is based on ingenious, innovative experiments at equally ingenious and innovative particle accelerators – the experiments provided the ingredients of the Model (i.e. discovered the particles and fields) and the precision measurements to allow quantitative tests; the Standard Model indeed turned out to be spectacularly accurate. With one ingredient missing. Escaping detection. The Higgs boson, absolutely required to make the Model work as ‘t Hooft had shown in his 1971 article.

The experimental discovery of the Higgs boson took several decades and a huge effort of many excellent scientists and engineers. In addition it required significant innovations and breakthroughs to render the experiments possible: an accelerator with new applications of superconductivity, with newly developed superconducting alloys for high current density and high fields; excellent field quality and excellent vacuum for high quality beams and high collision rates; detectors with 100 million read-out channels capable of handling one billion collisions per second; radiation hard and novel detector materials; new deep submicron technology for highly integrated and ‘radiation hard’ electronics; new computer architectures and the development of a worldwide computing ‘grid’. It required an effective collaboration of thousands of scientists and engineers of unprecedented complexity over many years.

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) project, including the experimental setups (christened ATLAS and CMS), was successful: a highly non trivial achievement crowned by the discovery of the Higgs boson with a mass of 125 GeV. An experimental progamme of at least a decade is still ahead of us to fully exploit the physics potential of the LHC (including that of two other innovative but more specialized setups called LHCb and ALICE).

Remarkable achievements, including breakthroughs in science, are sometimes awarded with more or less renowned prizes. By far the most prestigious international scientific prize is the Nobel Prize. Its prestige is based on the impressive list of winners since the first prize was awarded in 1901, including Einstein and many others.

The discovery of the Higgs boson certainly qualifies for this highest scientific honor. But the will of Alfred Nobel states that the prize shall be shared by at most three persons. In practice that probably means that the prize will be awarded to Higgs and Englert (his co-worker Brout being deceased), the theorists who layed the foundations for the new ‘Higgs physics’ in theoretical considerations published in 1964. Singling out the three most meritorious scientists from the thousands whose talent, ingenuity and perseverance were essential for the actual discovery of the Higgs particle, is not well possible. This does not mean that I would not be ready to make a motivated proposal, but it turns out to be impossible to organize wholehearted, generous support of  ‘the community’ for a selection of only three. Nobel’s will does not offer the possibility of awarding the prize to an organization either (with an exception for the Peace Prize), otherwise the Higgs prize might be awarded to CERN, to be collected by its Director.

No Nobel Prize for the experimental discovery of the Higgs boson then? No, but come to the rescue Yuri Milner and his Foundation. He invented the Fundamental Physics Prize (FPP) and handpicked the first nine (!) winners in 2012 and awarded them 3 million dollars (!) each. The nine have in common that they are theoretical physicists who ‘made transformative advances in the field’. In contrast to the Nobel Prize these advances are not required to be corroborated and substantiated by experimental verification. Higgs will/would never win the Nobel Prize if the boson he predicted is/was not found experimentally.

The first nine FPP winners were celebrated in a ceremony in Geneva, during the evening of March 20, 2013, in the international conference center. Furthermore a vast number of other FPP related prizes were awarded: in addition to the Fundamental Physics Prize, the Special Fundamental Physics Prize, the Physics Frontiers Prize and the New Horizons in Physics Prize. A total of well over twenty winners – it was a long evening...

The first Special Fundamental Physics Prize was awarded twice: one for Stephen Hawking (3 million dollars for predicting black hole radiation) and one for the experimental discovery of the Higgs boson. 3 million dollars shared (not equally) by seven (7) recipients. When I was confidentially informed about this ‘Large Hadron Collider prize’ a couple of months ago I was excited, happy: seven colleagues with most of whom I had closely worked together, including old friends. 

The ceremony, alas, was not commensurate with the standing of the scientists, the community they represent and missed the opportunity to celebrate science. I felt alienated from my colleagues and my field, I felt nothing of the joy of discovery. It was embarrassing. A famous actor leading the show. A famous piano player playing the piano ‘virtuoso’. A famous journalist ‘interviewing’ the recipients live from New York. Money can buy their presence, but not the ‘soul’ that is essential for a successful celebration.

Science is intrinsically democratic, ‘inclusive’ for everybody with an open mind; that is what the Fundamental Physics Prize should underline. And now, back to work.

Jos Engelen

March 30, 2013

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