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James Doherty | Open University | United Kingdom

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Nobel Rivals

In less than 24 hours the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced and there seems to be one word on everyone’s lips… Higgs. The scientific community appears to hope en masse that Peter Higgs and Francois Englert collect a Nobel for their prediction of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, the mechanism by which elementary particles such as quarks and electrons acquire mass. There is however competition. Here are some of the other front-runners:

Iron-based superconductors – Hideo Hosono

Superconducting materials have zero electrical resistance when cooled below a critical temperature – a very useful property as it allows for the highly efficient transfer of electrical signals. Today’s most efficient superconductors incorporate a layer of superconducting copper oxide which must be cooled to very low temperatures to operate. For example, in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the operating temperature of the superconducting electromagnets, which are used to steer the beam of particles around the accelerator, is retained at around -271°C. The highest temperature at which today’s superconductors can operate is around -140°C, which is still fairly chilly.

A magnet levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen. (Image by Mai-Linh Doan.)

A magnet levitating above a high-temperature superconductor, cooled with liquid nitrogen. (Image by Mai-Linh Doan.)

The possibility of an iron-based superconductor, which could in theory have a much higher critical temperature, had previously been dismissed as it was assumed that the large magnetic moment of iron prevented the emergence of pairs of electrons known as ‘Cooper pairs’, which are required for superconductivity in conventional superconductors. However, in 2008 Hideo Hoson of the Tokyo Institute of Technology accidentally stumbled across the first iron-based layered superconductor. Iron-based devices may hold the key to the holy grail of superconductivity – room temperature superconductors – which would certainly make running the LHC at bit cheaper!

Discovery of extrasolar planets – Geoffrey Marcy, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz 

In 1995 Michael Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva announced the discovery of a massive exoplanet in orbit around the star 51 Pegasi, and they used a sneaky technique know as the radial velocity method to find it. The gravitational field of the orbiting planet causes 51 Pegasi to ‘wobble’ in its own small orbit. Using the Doppler effect, Mayor and Queloz were able to measure the variations in the radial velocity of 51 Pegasi, that is the speed at which the star was moving towards and away from Earth in its orbit, to infer the existence of a massive exoplanet. Clever!

Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California has discovered more exoplanets than anybody else, including 70 out of the first 100 identified. Indeed he was the first to verify the existence of Mayor and Queloz’s exoplanet around 51 Pegasi. He has also discovered the first transiting planet around another star, the first extrasolar planet beyond 5 AU, the first Neptune-sized exoplanets, and the first multiple planet system around a star similar to the Sun. He is the quintessential planet-hunter.

An artist's impression of an exoplanet.

An artist’s impression of an exoplanet.

And the winner is…

So tomorrow’s announcement is not a foregone conclusion. Profs Englert and Higgs, and any others hoping to be awarded a Higgs-related Nobel prize, have some stiff competition. Exoplanets have provided some of the buzziest science headlines in recent years, while iron-based superconductors could have hugely significant practical applications, including in particle physics.

However, one senses that it is perhaps the right time for science’s ultimate accolade to be awarded for the prediction and/or observation of the Higgs, which has undoubtedly been one of the most significant discoveries in science in the past century. And with Profs Englert and Higgs in their 80s and Nobels not awarded posthumously (which is why Robert Brout, who collaborated with Englert and died in 2011, cannot be awarded the prize), one suspects that the Nobel committee is somewhat feeling the pressure.

Stay tuned to Quantum Diaries tomorrow where we’ll be blogging live to keep you informed of the latest developments in the run-up to and following the prize announcements. I will also be doing a bit of tweeting @JimmyDocco. And there is already an excellent blog post up in anticipation of the big announcement here.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com cormac o raifeartaigh

    I think a strong possibility is Higgs and the two team leaders of ATLAS and CMS, given that peter is the only one who predicted an actual particle