James Goodman, Democrat & Chronicle Staff writer
University of Rochester physics professor Carl R. Hagen plans to go to bed Monday night with his cell phone turned on next to his bed.
"If I wake up at 8 a.m., without being disturbed, I'll know that it's not good news," said Hagen.
That's because the awarding of this year's Nobel Prize in physics will be announced Tuesday, with the results known here early in the morning. Hagen hopes to be one of the recipients.
Hagen, however, is not optimistic that he'll get that early morning call, since he's one of five living physicists eligible for work on the theory about how particles get mass - and a Nobel Prize in physics can only be awarded to a maximum of three individuals.
"It's going to require a picking and choosing and that's unfortunate," said Hagen, who at 76 is the youngest of the five surviving scientists. "A fair resolution, I think, would be for them to depart from the three-person maximum or possibly to give prizes for two years in a single year."
Hagen's name has been in the mix for several years because in 1964 he was part of a team, as a 27-year-old UR research associate, that came up with a theory showing how some subatomic particles could get mass by passing through a special field in the universe right after the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago.
Two other papers by three other scientists were also published in 1964 that addressed the same issue - with all three papers coming to similar conclusions but approaching the questions somewhat differently. They were published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters journal.
The theory gained importance over time because it provides the missing link in what became the standard model for explaining how the universe formed from a fiery ball - the Big Bang.
Only over the past year or so has there been a growing consensus among scientists that the theory has been validated, as a result of experiments done at the giant atom-smasher called the Large Hadron Collider, at the Swiss-French border.
Researchers had been on the hunt for almost five decades to identify a particle that could validate the theory - the detection of what is commonly called the "God Particle," a subatomic particle that could only be produced by the theory set forth in 1964.
The collider - a $10 billion atom smasher that has a 17-mile underground circular tunnel - accelerated protons close to the speed of light. The collision of protons created subatomic particles that show characteristics predicted by the theory.
"It's a remarkable development that certainly merits a Nobel Prize. This discovery tells us that the proposed mechanism for how elementary particles get their masses is correct," said Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist and author of Knocking on Heaven's Door, which tells of the work done at this supercollider.
Hagen notes that there are still aspects that need to be proved by future experiments to make the theory conclusive, such as whether the subatomic particles created by the collider have "zero spin."
But if the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences goes ahead with awarding the prizes for this theory on Tuesday, here's who is in the running:
Hagen, who is still teaching at UR, along with the two other members of his team, Gerald Guralnik, who is on the faculty of Brown University and Tom Kibble, who retired from teaching at Imperial College in London, where the three collaborated in 1964.
Francois Englert, the Belgian physicist who worked with another Belgian physicist, Robert Brout, who died in 2011.
Peter Higgs, the British physicist whose name - "Higgs boson" - is often associated in the scientific community with the subatomic particle that scientists have been seeking.
Since a Nobel Prize rule says that the prize shouldn't be awarded posthumously, the awards committee might not want to risk waiting longer - especially since the collider is currently being upgraded.
A recent Reuters article from London relies on that news service's Nobel expert, David Pendlebury, who has accurately forecast 27 Nobel prize winners since 2002 and now says that Higgs and Englert will get it.
"Pendlebury believes Higgs, 84, and Englert, 80, are the logical winners this time," says Reuters.
The article goes on to say that the paper submitted by Hagen and his colleagues garnered fewer citations over the years and was the last of the papers to get published.
Hagen said that the paper which he and his colleagues published is the most comprehensive of the three, addressing issues the others didn't.
The LiveScience website recently posted a report saying: "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." The website, citing Pendlebury as one of its sources, says early predictions favor Higgs and Englert.
The Guardian newspaper, which is based in London, noted the difficult choices facing this year's physics selection.
"The commitee can contrive the wording of the prize to narrow the number downward and this is likely to happen," says The Guardian. "The prize could go to Francois Englert, who published the idea first, and Peter Higgs, who was second, but crucially was the first to flag up the new particle. But that would rebuff the trio of Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble."
One option, says The Guardian, is to give half the prize to Englert and Higgs, and half to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, commonly called CERN, which runs the collider.
"So far, only the peace prize has gone to an organization, but only the physiology and medicine committee has an internal rule preventing them from doing the same," The Guardian reports.
But Dan Watson, chairman of UR's department of physics and astronomy, said a revision of the rules is in order, so that all five surviving theorists can get the award.
"The fair way to resolve it is for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to recognize that the landscape of science is different now than it was 100 years ago," he said. "The results are generally produced these days by larger groups of people."
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