Nobel’s sharp cuts

How Gerald Guralnik just missed the physics prize

1:38pm, October 16, 2013

Gerald Guralnik, left, celebrates at CERN on July 4, 2012, the day scientists announced the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Magazine issue: Vol. 184 , November 2, 2013
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On July 4, 2012, Gerald Guralnik was in a packed room at CERN savoring the discovery of the Higgs boson, which confirmed a theory he proposed nearly 50 years ago. 

No such celebration occurred Oct. 8. Guralnik was home when he learned online that physicists François Englert and Peter Higgs had won the Nobel Prize in physics for formulating the same theory. “I’m happy for Englert and Higgs, but it does sting a little bit,” he says. “Physicists are only human.”

Presumably, Englert and Higgs got the nod because they published their 1964 theories of a mass-bestowing field first, before Guralnik and two colleagues. (Nobels have a maximum of three recipients.) Guralnik had come up with the gist of the Higgs field in 1962, during his doctoral research, but an adviser forced him to take that portion out, saying “I don’t know what’s the matter with it, but it’s not right.”

Guralnik later revisited that research, but faced yet more skepticism. He sat on the paper for months, incessantly searching for mistakes, before finally submitting it to Physical Review Letters. The day he mailed the manuscript, he received an advance mimeographed copy of Englert’s paper — the one that would garner a Nobel Prize 49 years later.

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