Today was the Nobel Prize ceremony, including of course the Physics Prize to François Englert and Peter Higgs. Congratulations once again to them!
I of course had nothing to do with the physics behind this year’s Nobel, but I did write a book about it, so I’ve had a chance to do a little commentating here and there. I wrote a short piece for The Independent that tries to place the contribution in historical context. I’ve had a bit of practice by now in talking about this topic to general audiences, so consider this the distillation of the best I can do! (It’s a UK newspaper, so naturally only Higgs is mentioned in the headline.) I love how, at the bottom of the story, you can register your level of agreement, from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” And if you prefer your words spoken aloud, here I am on the BBC talking about the book.
Meanwhile here at Caltech, we welcomed back favorite son Murray Gell-Mann (who spends his days at the Santa Fe Institute these days) for the 50th anniversary of quarks. One of the speakers, Geoffrey West, pointed out that no Nobel was awarded for the idea of quarks. Gell-Mann did of course win the Nobel in 1969, but that was “for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions”. In other words, strangeness, SU(3) flavor symmetry, the Eightfold Way, and the prediction of the Omega-minus particle. (Other things Gell-Mann helped invent: kaon mixing, the renormalization group, the sigma model for pions, color and quantum chromodynamics, the seesaw mechanism for neutrino masses, and the decoherent histories approach to quantum mechanics. He is kind of a big deal.)
But, while we now understand SU(3) flavor symmetry in terms of the quark model (the up/down/strange quarks are all light compared to the QCD scale, giving rise to an approximate symmetry), the idea of quarks itself wasn’t honored by the 1969 prize. If it had been, the prize certainly would have been shared by George Zweig, who proposed the idea independently. So there’s still time to give out the Nobel for the quark model! Perhaps Gell-Mann and Zweig could share it with Harald Fritzsch, who collaborated with Gell-Mann on the invention of color and QCD. (The fact that QCD is asymptotically free won a prize for Gross, Politzer and Wilczek in 2004, but there hasn’t been a prize for the invention of the theory itself.) Modern particle physics has such a rich and fascinating history, we should honor it as accurately as possible.