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Will the Higgs and superluminal neutrinos be confirmed in 2012?

By James Dacey

Physics World has unveiled its top 10 breakthroughs of the year with the top spot going to an ingenious experiment on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, performed by a group of researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada. The nine runners up include breakthroughs across a range of physics, including astronomy, optics and quantum computing.

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Two things not on our list, however, are the recent announcements that have spurred great excitement both within the physics community and far beyond it. The first being the results of the OPERA collaboration in which neutrinos appear to travel faster than light when fired between the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva and the Gran Sasso underground lab in central Italy. The second is the announcement last week that physicists working at CERN’s ATLAS and CMS detectors may have caught their first tentative glimpses of the long-sought Higgs boson.

Our reason for not including these results in our list is that while they pose some incredibly exciting questions for physics, they are not as yet bona fide research discoveries. But that is not to say that ongoing experimental and theoretical work will not lead to more concrete results next year. So we want to hear your thoughts on this matter. In the final poll of the year we are asking the following question:

Which of the following is most likely to become a confirmed discovery in 2012?

The Higgs boson
Neutrinos travel faster than light in a vacuum

To cast your vote, please visit our Facebook page, and feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment.

In last week’s poll we asked you a question related to another of our end-of-year-lists, namely our top 10 popular-physics books reviewed in 2011. The honour of topping this list went to Lawrence Krauss for his biography of Richard Feynman, entitled Quantum Man. You can see the full list in this news article and you can hear about all the books in this special podcast presented by myself along with Margaret Harris (Physics World‘s books editor) and Matin Durrani (Physics World‘s editor).

One thing that came out of our debates when drawing up this list was the acceptance that there will always be an element of subjectivity in this kind of exercise. After all, the beauty of a great book is that it can inspire readers in different ways. So in our poll we asked you the question: When reading popular-science books, what do you find most stimulating?

The results showed that respondents appear unafraid of getting their teeth stuck into some solid science, as 48% of people chose the option “the technical details underpinning the science”. 24% said they get more inspiration from “the sense of wonder conveyed by the author”. 15% prefer to read about “the impact of science on culture and society”. Just 13% said they prefer to read about the “personal stories of the scientists”.

Patrick Andrews, one pollster based in the UK who opted for the technical details, commented: “The fact that this genre exists at all shows that many people want to understand. Why are so many science books so unpopular? Surely because they fail to deliver clear, pithy explanations.” A different perspective was offered up by Dean Smith, also in the UK, who favours writing that focuses on the impact of science on culture and society, and wrote: “If you wanted vast detail then you should read a journal. When the author describes the effect of a discovery on culture and society it is something everyone can read, understand and debate with reasonable understanding.”

Thank you for all your responses and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

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