By Jon Cartwright
Awarding Nobel prizes, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) proved earlier this month, is no easy business. Sometimes the the prize-worthy research is the responsibility of one or two inspirational scientists. But, as is more and more often the case, the research is a joint effort among many.
Take the Higgs boson, predicted by Peter Higgs in 1963 and now the one of the most sought after particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN lab near Geneva. If the LHC does detect a Higgs boson, who deserves a Nobel? Just Higgs himself? Perhaps also the LHC project leader, Lyn Evans? Or maybe the entire LHC crew?
I’m guessing many of you will have assumed that the physics committee are unable to award all or part of a Nobel prize to a collaboration like the LHC. But take a close look at the statutes on the Nobel web page — which were written down almost a century ago — and you might find something that surprises you:
bq. Each prize-awarding body shall be competent to decide whether the prize it is entitled to award may be conferred upon an institution or association.
That’s right — the RSAS (for physics and chemistry), the Karolinska Institute (for physiology or medicine), the Swedish Academy (for literature) and the Norwegian committee (for peace) can each chose if they want to start awarding to institutions or associations. Clearly the Norwegian committee has already done that several times, for example when it recognized both Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change in 2007. But Anders Barany, a senior advisor at the Nobel museum, tells me that, of the other three, the RSAS and Swedish Academy have not made up their minds up either way.
Barany wrote me in an e-mail: “If Ladbrookes had a betting on whether the RSAS will give the prize to ‘an institution or a society’ like the LHC (and others), I would bet a considerable sum on it…Physics has changed so much since the RSAS discussed this issue in year 1900 that it would really be a limitation on the prize if it continued to be given only to individuals.”
What do you think? Should the LHC collaboration itself get a prize if finds anything important?