The Nobel Prize And The Rule Of Three

Dec 14, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 11:31 pm
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This week, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert received the Nobel Prize for developing the theory known as the Higgs-boson particle in 1964. But distinguished as they are, Higgs and Englert are just two of six scientists who developed the theory and because of the Nobel committees rule of three; that no single prize can go to more than three individuals, most of these scientists missed out on winning the Nobel, including Carl Hagen, a University of Rochester physics professor.

He's gracious enough, however, to join us from the studios of WXXI in Rochester, New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARL HAGEN: It's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Is this a tough week for you?

HAGEN: October was a tough month, let's say. October 8th was a day they made the announcement and although my colleagues and I had more or less reconciled ourselves to the fact that it was not going to be a good day for us, that was the time the other shoe dropped and they made their announcements.

SIMON: Do you not refer to it as the way we just referred to it in introducing you?


HAGEN: You're quite correct in that. It's very ironic that the name, which is ascribed most commonly to it and I'll say it, the Higgs-boson, was brought about here in Rochester. Back in the '60s we had a particle physics conference and there was a physicist there by the name of Ben Lee and he talked a lot to Peter Higgs, who was at that same conference.

And so when he referred to it in subsequent work he's say the Higgs mechanism or the Higgs-boson. Somewhat later, distinguished physicist, Leon Letterman, a Nobelist, came along and wrote a book which he called the "The God Particle." I found it much more convenient to use that whenever I give a public talk. I'm going to say that the bulk of the physics community deplores the use of this word.

SIMON: Deplore the use of the word God, you mean?

HAGEN: Yeah, that's right. They figure, best to keep the two issues of science and theology completely disentangled. But I always say quite freely that I would rather give credit to the deity than to one of my competitors.


SIMON: It's often pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize; Tolstoy, Ibsen, Mark Twain never won the Nobel Prize for literature. Isn't there almost an equally distinguished group of scientists who never won the Nobel?

HAGEN: Without a doubt. And let me just interject an observation made by the late, great Richard Feynman who maybe well known to your audience in connection with the Challenger disaster inquiry. He said that Nobel did two bad things in his life. He invented dynamite and he invented the Nobel Prize. And there are many people who would say that the Nobel Prize is counter to the ethos of physics, which is concern with discovery of physical principles and not with rewarding individuals.

SIMON: Carl Hagen, professor of physics, and a great one, at the University of Rochester.

HAGEN: Many thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.