A Nobel Prize for Higgs and Englert: Another Blow Against “Real” Science?

Ernst Mach is not amused.
Ernst Mach is not amused.

Skipping over the experimentalists?  Ernst Mach is rolling over in his grave.  So are most of the Nazis.  Let me explain.

Even though the Higgs particle has been in the news over the past year because of the extraordinary work in Geneva at CERN, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to the scientists who first proposed its existence nearly half a century ago, namely Peter W. Higgs and François Englert.

The Nobel Prize committee helpfully explains the significance of their work here, and they say pithily that the award was for “the theory of how particles acquire mass.”  (Oh, is that all?  I thought we were looking for the God particle!)

Some criticize the Nobel Prize as a relic of a different brand of science, one focusing on the heroic efforts of individuals.  It doesn’t really reflect teams, mega-laboratories, research programs that span decades and countries, and authorship of publications that have more in common with massively-multiplayer games than with a lone genius in an ivory tower.

It’s true that the practice of science has changed, but Alfred Nobel didn’t create the prize in order to analyze practice.  He wanted to reward individuals, and there’s no way to avoid the fact that the Nobel is the most prestigious prize around, especially for scientists—after all, it puts you in the same league with Curie and Einstein.

As a historian of science, I was delighted to see that some folks have become a bit miffed that the Nobel committee awarded the prize to the original theorists, rather than to the scientists who sought to demonstrate the reality of the Higgs boson experimentally.

I say I was delighted, not because I agree that it should have gone to experimentalists, but because it is a great illustration of the powerful, historical tensions that have existed between theoretical and experimental physics since the end of the nineteenth century (at least!).

So that brings us to the question.  What’s more important: developing the idea, or demonstrating its truth?  And why do we feel like we need to choose one over the other?

Historians might say it’s a dispute as old as René Descartes and Francis Bacon, whose rationalist and empiricist approaches inflamed scientific debates throughout the seventeenth century and formed the backbone of French and English scientific cultures.

But I say instead: let’s just all agree to blame the Nazis.  Seriously.

At the turn of the century, two very grumpy men at the University of Vienna argued vehemently with each other about theories and experiments.  One was Ludwig Boltzmann, who believed in the existence of atoms and tried to express their existence mathematically, using statistics.  His nemesis, Ernst Mach, shouted him down by extolling the virtues of experiment.  Real science, Mach contended, was based on the economical expression of ideas based on empirical evidence.  If you can’t detect something, you can’t say it exists.

What would Mach have said about the Higgs particle?  I suspect he would have quoted Cuba Gooding, Jr.: “show me the money!”  Or rather, show me the particle, then you can have the Nobel money.

The supposed superiority of experimental physics was pervasive.  This was true even among theoreticians.  Max Planck felt he had to grapple with Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science, a topic explored extensively in John Heilbron’s biography of Planck.  The fact that the quantum itself began as an equation band-aid didn’t help Planck in his attempt to demonstrate its reality.  And the most prestigious center of physics in the first decades of the twentieth century was the Cavendish Laboratory, where physicists flocked to work on cathode rays, radioactivity, and track particles with cloud chambers, working with luminaries such as J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Even Niels Bohr, who would rival Einstein’s theoretical chops, went to England to work with Rutherford.

Experimental physicists often took this preference to extremes, highlighting what they saw as true, real physics—as opposed to the mathematical, theoretical physics that had no clear representation in reality.  During the rise of Nazism in Germany, the latter was derided as particularly “Jewish” thinking.  When Einstein became the leading theoretical physicist, challenging Newtonian mechanics with his theories of relatively, it just reinforced the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-theory.  Even non-Jews such as Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg were derided as exemplars of “Jewish” physics—and in Nazi Germany, this was no compliment.

Taking the story further, if you have a taste for irony, we find not only Einstein but other practitioners of “Jewish” physics moving to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s to play roles in the development of the atomic bomb.  And the “White Jew,” as his enemies called him, Werner Heisenberg, was tapped to lead Hitler’s atomic bomb project.  Even the Nazis came around to theory, in the end, despite having invested extraordinary rhetorical energy into denigrating it.

I’m very sympathetic to physicists who say that awarding the Nobel to Englert and Higgs unfairly reinforces the preference of theory over experiment.  Yet to suggest that theorists have always enjoyed the highest prestige is to ignore a crucial period in the development of physics.

Scientific communities today may still be living with this historical legacy. The tribulations of theoretical physics under the Nazis, the ironic twist of the atomic bomb, and the subsequent half century of imagining the Einsteins of the world toiling away at the secrets of the universe—on a blackboard—reversed the image of “real” science established in the early twentieth century.

But fear not, experimentalists.  I’m confident that, in time, it will swing the other direction again.

2 thoughts on “A Nobel Prize for Higgs and Englert: Another Blow Against “Real” Science?”

    1. I’m not sure if Boltzmann’s suicide had much to do with Mach specifically, though the disputes he had over his theories may have contributed to his mood swings. Evidently they occurred often and he really struggled in the final years. The worst bout followed a trip to the United States in 1905, and most historians who write about him have assumed that he had some form of bipolar disorder.

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