Today’s Physics Nobel Prize Didn’t Go to the Higgs

The winning research centers around figuring out the way light behaves at a very fundamental level - a field called “quantum optics”

Image: Wylie

Today’s Nobel Prize in physics went to Serge Haroche, from France, and David Wineland, from the United States. The pair won for their research on something we use every day: light. Their research has centered around figuring out the way light behaves at a very fundamental level—a field called “quantum optics.” Haroche was quite surprised to win. The BBC writes:

Prof Haroche was reached by phone from the press conference. He had been told he had won just 20 minutes before telling reporters: “I was lucky – I was in the steet and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately.”

Here’s what the Royal Swedish Academy says about the award:

The Nobel Laureates have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them. For single particles of light or matter the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over. But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena.

If you’re surprised that it didn’t go to someone for the Higgs, you shouldn’t be. Slate asked some science journalists last week who would win. Charles Seife and Geoff Brumfiel cleared up that misconception right away. Seife said:

We have to get one thing out of the way first. It’s not going to be for the Higgs. It’s too early. Even if the Higgs evidence from CERN was hammer-hitting-you-on-the-head conclusive (which it isn’t), it would be a few years before the Nobel committee would likely award a prize.

And Brumfiel agreed:

The obvious story in physics this year has been the Higgs particle, but it seems unlikely that it will get a prize. For one thing, nominations began before this summer’s announcement. For another, we’re still not entirely sure what we’ve found. More data will be released next month and again in December. Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish.

Brumfiel was slightly closer than Seife on his prediction for who would win, although not quite right. He predicted the award would go to researchers working on “specially structured materials that do cool stuff to light.” Right on the light, wrong on the medium.

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