Tomorrow’s Nobel Prize in physics is widely anticipated to go to Peter Higgs, perhaps along with Francois Englert, for their nearly 50-year-old prediction of a new particle that we now call the Higgs boson. Last year’s discovery of the Higgs was one of the most important events in physics in recent decades; surely Higgs and Englert would make deserving recipients.
But the Nobel committee is a opaque institution; surprises are the norm, not the exception. Who else might get woken up with a call from Stockholm?
Just two decades ago, we knew of only nine planets in the universe—eight if you didn’t count Pluto. Then in 1995, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, both of the University of Geneva, announced the discovery of a massive planet around the nearby star 51 Pegasi, a finding that was soon confirmed by Geoffrey Marcy, then at San Francisco State University. The discovery fired the starting gun to announce our age of exoplanets. Astronomers have now confirmed the existence of about 1,000 extrasolar planets—the exact number is nearly impossible to pinpoint—and big announcements are anticipated soon. Perhaps no other recent discovery has as profoundly affected how we see our place in the universe as the realization that we are but one of an estimated 100 billion planets in the Milky Way.
Most of the exoplanet discoveries in the past few years have come from the groundbreaking Kepler satellite mission, which looks for exoplanets transiting in front of distant stars. The Kepler mission came directly from the indefatigable efforts of William Borucki, who battled those who doubted the mission would ever work, and who fought for decades to make it a reality. Though he hasn’t generated as much interest this year as Marcy, Mayor and Queloz, in due time Borucki should certainly become a Nobel front-runner.
In addition, interest as focused on Hideo Hosono at the Tokyo Institute of Technology for his accidental discovery of iron-based superconductors in 2008. These materials are able to carry a superconducting current at the relatively high temperatures of 50 degrees above absolute zero. Just as the discovery of copper-based superconductors triggered hopes that we may be able to achieve superconductivity at room temperature, Hosono’s iron-based superconductors present new tools for experimenters to play with, and new puzzles for theorists to ponder.
Of course, the Nobel committee could always do something it’s never before done—award the prize to a group, not individuals. While the by-laws of the prize prohibit splitting the Nobel into more than three pieces, nowhere is it specified that the committee can not name a group as one of the three awardees. (Indeed, the Nobel peace prize often goes to organizations.) We at Scientific American implored the Nobel committee to give the award to teams after last year’s Higgs boson discovery, an experimental triumph that took the efforts of thousands of physicists and engineers to achieve. What better way to commend those efforts than with a prize to CERN and the ATLAS and CMS experiments as well?
Artist conception of planet around Alpha Centauri B courtesy ESO/L. Calada/Nick Risinger