October 8, 2013

Higgs, Englert win Nobel Prize in physics for ‘the God particle’

The Higgs boson is associated with an invisible field that is part of the basic infrastructure of the cosmos.

By Joel Achenbach
The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM — The entire physics community anticipated Tuesday that Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences would bestow a Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic particle that plays a crucial role in the fabric of the universe. But who, exactly, would get the honor? The aging theorists who dreamed it up back in 1964? Or the mostly younger experimentalists who last year said they’d found it?

click image to enlarge

In this July 2012 photo, Belgium physicist Francois Englert, left, and British physicist Peter Higgs answer journalists’ questions at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland.

The Associated Press

The academy went with the theorists — two of them, at least. The new Nobel laureates are 84-year-old Englishman Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, and Francois Englert, 80, of Belgium. That left out in the cold several other theorists who could plausibly claim to have deserved the honor as well.

Englert materialized by voice Tuesday morning in a teleconference after the announcement in Stockholm and did not sound particularly surprised as he answered a few questions about enduring unknowns in physics (dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity). But a Nobel committee official said no one had been able to reach Higgs, despite multiple phone calls. The committee had also emailed him the news.

“I am overwhelmed to receive this award,” Higgs said in a statement released by the University of Edinburgh. “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”

The Higgs boson, once dubbed by scientist Leon Lederman as “the God particle,” is associated with an invisible field that is part of the basic infrastructure of the cosmos. The mass of particles is determined by how they interact with this field.

The Nobel committee said it gave the prize to Englert and Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

Rarely has a Nobel Prize announcement arrived with so much hype and anticipation. Everyone in the physics community knew that the prize could go to someone involved with the Higgs particle. It was as if the prize would be the final validation of the discovery, which was announced on July 4, 2012.

“This is great for physics. It’s great for science. The story is fantastic,” said Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society. “They answered a question that’s so simple and so basic that few people asked it — why do things have mass?”

“These gentlemen did this work in 1964, and they had to wait half a century to see it come to fruition,” said Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. “The Nobel committee has done a very fair job on a very difficult decision.”

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist and author of the book “Higgs Discovery,” said the prize was well-deserved and noted the “heroic efforts” of the experimentalists who found the particle.

More questions about the Higgs remain to be answered, she said: “Looking forward, we want to know the resolution to the so-called hierarchy problem, the question of why the Higgs boson isn’t 16 orders of magnitude heavier, as our theory of quantum mechanics and special relativity would predict.”

Although the physics community expected that the prize would recognize, in some fashion, the discovery of the Higgs particle, no one knew how the Nobel committee would apportion the credit. Without the experimental work, no one today would likely be talking about the theories of the 1960s. But the efforts at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN involved thousands of scientists and engineers, including many from the United States.

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