Peter Higgs and Francois Englert waited 48 years for their theory to be proven by experiment, and then a year more for the ultimate scientific seal of approval: the Nobel Prize.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced this morning that this year’s physics award will go to the two scientists, who in 1964 predicted the existence of a tiny, essential particle called the Higgs boson long before the technology to detect it existed. The theorists’ foresight paid off on July 4, 2012, when researchers at the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, announced they’d found a particle matching the Higgs’ description. The boson is at the heart of physicists’ understanding of the universe, responsible for the mass in the atoms that make up galaxies, planets and people.
Higgs and Englert were the odds-on favorites to win the prize this year. In fact, media speculation was so fervent that Peter Higgs reportedly went on vacation without his phone to avoid the furor. “Rumor has it that he has gone into hiding for the rest of the week,” Nobel committee member Olga Botner of Uppsala University in Sweden said during a televised interview following the announcement. “Since this prize was so anticipated, he knew in either case, if he gets it there would be a press storm, if he doesn’t get it there would still be a press storm.”
While the Nobel committee resorted to telling Higgs of his award via email, it reached Englert, 80, by phone. “You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant, of course,” the Belgian scientist said during the Nobel announcement event. “I’m very happy to have that recognition.” Englert, a professor emeritus at Universite Libre de Bruxelles, predicted the existence of the Higgs boson with his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011 (the Nobel is not awarded posthumously). Independently, Peter Higgs, a British scientist who’s now professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, arrived at the same prediction in the same year.
According to the theory, particles get their mass by interacting with the so-called Higgs field, which is thought to pervade space, just as swimmers get wet by moving through a pool. The physical manifestation of the field, the Higgs boson, is what was finally detected. The discovery has set the physics community clamoring for Nobel recognition of Higgs and Englert. “I am thrilled to see this Prize awarded,” says Don Lincoln of Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., who worked on the LHC’s CMS experiment, one of two detectors that found evidence for the particle. “It was a long journey, however the Swedish Academy of Sciences did the right thing by waiting for the prediction to be confirmed by scientists at the CERN laboratory. Personally, I am delighted to have played a small role in the discovery.”
The Nobel prize is the pinnacle of scientific accolades. By tradition, the physics prize is awarded to a maximum of three people per year—a rule that prohibits the committee from recognizing other theorists’ contributions to the Higgs boson prediction, such as Gerald Guralnik, Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen, who collaborated at Imperial College London in 1964 on an independent prediction of a Higgs-like mechanism for granting particles their mass. “It’s a shame that the rules of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (and the Nobel will) don’t allow for more people to be included, as there are many brilliant contributors,” Lincoln says.
And this year’s award doesn’t honor some 6,000 experimentalists at CERN who helped to make the Higgs boson discovery, although the Nobel committee conspicuously called out the LHC’s achievement in its announcement, which recognized Higgs and Englert “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.”
Howard Gordon, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, who works on the ATLAS project, said he was “lucky” today to be in an ATLAS collaboration meeting as he watched the live announcement of the Nobel Prize. “All of the 300 people in the room in Marrakech broke into spontaneous applause congratulating the two theorists,” he wrote in an email to Scientific American.
Nobel prize deliberations are kept opaque, but an hour-long delay in announcing this year’s winners suggests that it was not a simple matter this time. “The decision about the prize is taken on the very same day it is announced,” Botner said. “So there was a discussion and there should be a discussion. Today there was a very good discussion and we landed on this prize.”
Here is an Instant Egghead video explaining what the Higgs is:
For more on the Higgs particle discovery, check out the Scientific American ebook The Higgs Boson: The Search for the God Particle.