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Nobel prize: there should be no controversy

Should Nicola Cabibbo have shared this year’s Nobel prize? (Credit: Marcella Bona)

By Jon Cartwright

There was a reason why science reporters like me groaned at the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday. “Drat,” we thought in synchrony. “Now I have to explain what symmetry breaking is.” Maybe that’s why we on all hoped for more fathomable research, like dark energy or neutrino oscillations.

For some particle physicists, there was a less selfish reason to be irritated. Two of the three new Japanese-born laureates, Toshihide Maskawa of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics and Makoto Kobayashi of the KEK lab, were awarded the prize for figuring out how to encompass so-called charge–parity violation in the Standard Model. The crucial part of their work was in describing the decays of quarks, for which they created the CKM matrix — “M” for Maskawa and “K” for Kobayashi. So why did the Nobel committee appear to disregard the first initial — “C” for the Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo?

Cabibbo did not formulate the CKM matrix itself, though he did lay the groundwork for it. In 1963, almost a decade before Maskawa and Kobayashi made their contributions, the Italian discovered how to describe two distinct decay rates by a four-quark matrix, known as the Cabibbo matrix. The important step made by Maskawa and Kobayashi was to realise that, to account for the observed charge–parity violation, the matrix must be extended to incorporate a third family of quarks. As these quarks — the charm, bottom and top — were discovered over the following three decades, the Japanese physicists’ work gradually set in stone.

I had no luck contacting Cabbibo yesterday, but according to Italian media his colleagues have noticed that he has been somewhat rankled by the Nobel committee’s decision. (Not so silent is Roberto Petronzio, president of Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics, who says he is “filled with bitterness”.) This is understandable — who wouldn’t want a share of 10m kronor? — but Cabibbo’s work, most will agree, is distinct from that of Maskawa and Kobayashi.

There is also the fact that Cabibbo was not the only unsung physicist who contributed to the new Nobel laureates’ work. Jeffrey Goldstone, a British-born theorist, had a big hand in helping Yoichiro Nambu, the third Nobel prize winner this year, to develop the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking. The Nobel committee has a strict quota of just three awardees per year; there will be disappointments, but not everyone can be honoured.

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  1. coraifeartaigh

    It’s not often I disagree with Jon Cartwright, but there are a couple of points above that are debatable.
    1.”The Nobel committee has a strict quota of just three awardees per year – there will be disappointments, but not everyone can be honoured”.
    True of course, but some of those disappointments may be well justified, and this raises issues of fairness. Given the importance of Nobel prizes today in the ranking of universities and even countries, I think the limiting of the number of winners to three needs to be reconsidered – if only in the context of publishing the shortlist.
    2. “Cabibbo’s work, most will agree, is distinct from that of Maskawa and Kobayashi”.
    Anyone with an interest in the history of particle physics would certainly agree – but the work of M&K is derivative of the work of Cabibbo, not the other way round – a very important distinction. It is for this reason his name is first on the CKM model.
    3.”There is also the fact that Cabibbo was not the only unsung physicist who contributed to the new Nobel laureates’ work. Jeffrey Goldstone, a British-born theorist, had a big hand in helping Yoichiro Nambu, the third Nobel prize winner this year, to develop the idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking”.
    Absolutely true, and probably an even greater injustice, according to most particle physicists I know. But surely this is further argument against the unfairness of the Nobel system, rather than a justification of the exclusion of Cabibbo.
    In summary, someone has to win – agreed. But given the public hegemony of Nobel, the winner takes all model does a grave injustice to those first-rank scientists who do not get a prize. Regards, Cormac

  2. sauro succi

    Cabibbo’s work is universally acknowledges as the one
    laying the conceptual ground for the KM extension,
    years ahead of them: there’s no excuse, let alone any scientific rationale, for amputating
    CKM into KM. Incidentally, the triplet Nambu + CM appears a kind of
    artificial patchwork, putting together two contributions that
    hardly belong to each other (sure enough, we can talk symmetry a large, but a Nobel is supposed to be sharply pointed, isn’t it?).
    Goldstone may be the unsung for Nambu, but this has nothing to do with
    the injustice suffered by Cabibbo.
    I believe this is many sigmas away in the distribution of Nobel mistakes.
    It is only to be hoped that they will set out to repare it in the coming years.
    PS Sorry: manifestly i meant Nambu + KM …

  3. While I agree with the observations of coraifeartaigh on the post, my objections are on different count. I think any award of noble prize to prticle physicists is at least premature if not entirely wrong at this stage. I am not a believer in strings or extra dimensions but I think particle physics needs to explain a lot more than it does even if we assume all our theories to be valid including Higgs mechanism.
    Without going into technical aspects or any introduction, I will straight away analyze the information released to the public on the award winning theory.
    As one reads through the note, one encounters the phrases like, ‘Almost all the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place’ and ‘ The Standard Model, at least for the time being,….’ ‘Gravity, the fourth force, which makes sure we keep our feet on the ground, has not yet been incorporated into the model and poses a colossal challenge for physics today…’ and ‘How nature solved this problem, as mentioned earlier, is something we do not yet know in detail.’ And ‘All the same, physicists are still not content..’ and one finds a big question mark in front of Higgs Boson in the particle chart. These phrases clearly indicates that the standard model is at least an incomplete theory.
    Standard model has survived on a hypothetical model for too long but no one expected that a theory that relies on the existence of Higgs boson may receive noble prize. We all know that Standard model and Higgs Boson seeks to explain only 2% of the mass of the universe and hence cannot be answer to the mass-riddle. Moreover, there is no scientific logic provided in the Big Bang model for appearance and disappearance of antimatter and therefore award of noble prize is all the more surprising.
    Let me clarify that there is absolutely no problems in the theoretical prediction and observed results in the experiments; problem is at the conceptual level, problem is in the interpretation and is in extension of observed results to beyond the reasonable limits.
    An observation or an observed phenomenon becomes an experiment of science because of its interpretation to establish cause-effect relationships.
    If an astrologer makes a prediction based on horoscope about the future of an individual and if he gets the prediction right then can we take it as a conclusive evidence that planets control and affect the fate of a human being? I am not suggesting astrology is right or wrong; all I am saying is getting a prediction right in itself is not important esp. if prediction is made on some sort of intuition. There has to be a difference in science and mysticism.
    One of the biggest problems with the standard model is that it does not explain what it means by annihilation. I have discussed this feature of the universe later in this post.
    Mr. Nambu gets the Noble Prize for something that is still has a question mark in the release for the public. If Mr. Nambu gets the Noble Prize then more deserving candidate surely has to be Mr. Higgs himself.
    The analogy of the pencil standing on its tip is rather immature because pencil, on its own, will stand on its tip only if forces from all directions are exactly equal and in that case the inertia of the pencil will not be disturbed unless some external force is applied. In the absence of any external force, the pencil will fall only if symmetry is broken. Symmetry is not lost as pencil falls over, pencil falls over because symmetry is lost.
    Let us move forward to the heading, ‘Higgs Provides Mass’. The first para ends with the sentence, ‘…but why electrons acquired mass at all is quite different question that no one has answered yet.’
    Unfortunately, the Noble Prize has been awarded to a theory the fundamentals of which are based on several assumptions. Award of Noble Prize to a theory ensures almost instant validation of a theory. This year’s award validates not only the award winning theory but also validates a theory that the Royal Swedish Academy of Science itself considers questionable. Big bang models is only slightly better than fiction and relies on several assumptions.
    More serious issues pertaining to the standard models are:
    Society was not required to go beyond Japan to find evidences that question standard model. The evidences on the decay processes of some of the particles are not consistent with the predictions of the standard model.
    Even if Higgs Boson is detected all the questions pertaining to mass of all particles are not answered.
    Moreover, how Higgs Boson itself came into existence is something that remains unanswered and relationship of Higgs field with Big Bang is something that also remains unexplained.
    These are highly hypothetical theories.
    The solution to the mass riddle rests in one of the observations made in the release itself. Matter-antimatter interaction results in annihilation of both and only thing left is radiation!
    It is the last part of the sentence that suggests that ‘only thing left is radiation’ is something that provides solution to several theoretical problems of physics. Mass lost in the form of radiation is lost forever from the perceptible universe that simply means that the energy of these particles becomes unusable.
    Annihilation or development are not scientific terminologies. No development or deterioration takes place in nature; there is only change of form and the one such change of form is when energy is released in the form of radiation.
    CMBR is supposed to be the result of de-coupling of photons then where has the energy released in the form of radiation due to matter-antimatter interaction disappeared? No one has even asked this question so far. If radiation means annihilation as is suggested in the release then why it is applicable only to the radiation released in the matter-antimatter interaction? No one has asked this question thus far.
    We have not lost all the mass due to the matter-antimatter interaction in one sequence of events but we are constantly losing mass in the form of radiation. Energy releases in the form of radiation becomes unusable and imperceptible. Energy released in the form of radiation becomes unusable because it neither gets converted to matter nor does it interacts with matter as is the case with CMBR.
    This simple analysis resolves most of the theoretical problems of physics as has been described in detail in my book, “Nature of Reality’. For further details, please log on to my website
    If we will try to evolve a field theory based on any other theory then most important questions pertaining to the observed phenomenon that theory seeks to describe will remain unanswered.
    Physics need a proper field theory that describes relationship between space, matter, and motion. Such a theory must also be able to explain how information is conserved in the universe.
    The concept of time and its relationship with space automatically emerges from such a theory.

  4. Ervin Goldfain

    To prevent someone who pioneered a critically important idea from sharing the Nobel Prize with researchers that follow in his path is a pinnacle of unfairness. It shows once more that decisions regarding the Nobel Prize remain too political and not entirely driven by objectivity.

  5. ervin goldfain

    In response to Sunil Thakur’s comments,
    It is indeed a sad state of affairs that particle theory remains a highly polarized field of research. The scientific community pays virtually no attention at all to ideas and developments that fall outside the realm of few traditional and highly speculative paths (string theory, quantum gravity, super-symmetry, super-gravity, twistors, little Higgs models, E8 group theories, conformal field theory, AdS/CFT and the like). Contributions that target nonlinear dynamics of gauge fields and their universal transition to chaos and complexity are systematically ignored. And this is despite the fact that some of these approaches are in surprisingly close agreement with experimental data.
    For a Higgs-free derivation of particle masses and gauge couplings based on the universal route to chaos in nonlinear systems, see for example:

  6. The scientific history has placed Prof. Cabibbo name firmly aside to Kobayashi and Maskawa’s names already. The CKM matrix is the main finding of all these scientists and I can see no reason to honor them together as well. The common choice of Kobayashi and Maskawa just makes the controversy of Nobel prize jury decision more apparent.

  7. Kami

    I agree with Jon Cartwright that there should be no controversy. The problem in this particular case is that History is written upside down. Most Physicists tend to explain History with nowadays views, and thus some even said that the Kobayashi-Maskawa (KM) model is a simple generalization of the Cabibbo’s work. But the first thing to be learnt when doing history is that one must understand what was the situation at the time of the discovery (and not nowadays, ie a posteriori). This is well explained by Kobayashi in his Nobel lecture [], ie the atmosphere of the Nagoya group, the Sakata model, etc. I can also say in following the arguments of those who denigrated KM’s work that the Cabibbo angle [Phys. Rev. Lett. 10, 531 - 533 (1963)] is simply a copy/paste of the Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata paper [Prog. Theor. Phys. 28, 870 (1962)]. I am sure in this case everybody would agree in saying it is a historical non-sense. So why such a controversy where there should be none? Physicists need also to better study the history of their science! [Note that in Weinberg book on QFT, vol2, the chapter 21.3 says "Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix"]

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  9. Matt

    This controversy will be nothing compared to the Higgs controversy in the next few years – there are six that lay claim the mass mechanism. 1) Brout, Englert, 2) Higgs, 3) Guralnik, Hagen, Kibble. Note I said “mechanism” as BE did not note the boson or massless particle as PH and GHK did.
    All six received the Sakuari Prize in 2010 and papers were recognized as milestone papers by PRL. Glad APS had the “balls” to do that.
    For the record, the winners noted in this article…Maskawa and Kobayashi…referenced GHK and PH in their paper – not BE.
    Clearly the academy is waiting for a discovery. Nothing like good old fashioned science politics.
    Interesting links:

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