As soon as physicists announced that they had likely found a particle matching the description of the much sought after Higgs Boson, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences — the body responsible for awarding the scientific Nobel Prizes — was on the clock. When would they award the Nobel Prize for one of the great triumphs of modern science? And more interestingly, to whom would they award that prize?
This morning, after several delays and amidst eager anticipation, the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs. The award specifically cites their “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.”
“You may imagine this is not very unpleasant,” Englert, a professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, said with understatement. “I’m very, very happy.” Higgs, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, had declared in advance that he would not be available for any comments after the prize announcement, the New York Times reported.
At the heart of this award is the so-called Higgs field, a permeating feature of the universe, analogous to the electromagnetic field. Like all quantum fields, it can jitter with excitement with the energy of these excitations embodied by particles associated with that field. Whereas jitters in the electromagnetic field are the somewhat familiar packets of light energy called photons, prominent jitters in the Higgs field are known as Higgs bosons.
Englert, along with his colleague Robert Brout — who died in 2011 and is therefore ineligible for the Nobel Prize — first suggested the existence of such a field in a 1964 paper. Two weeks later, Higgs published an independent paper on the same topic, noting the associated particle.
Once introduced, the Higgs field immediately explained several important questions remaining in the Standard Model, an already incredibly well-verified theory of physics in which matter is composed of fundamental particles and interact with forces like electromagnetism and the strong, mediated by a different species of “force” particles. The Higgs field also offered a suggestion for how particles acquire a little thing called mass. You might have heard of it in school.
All that remained was to test this massive contribution, which only took 50 long years. In order to find the Higgs boson the theory predicted, researchers needed to construct the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful, complex and expensive piece of machinery ever created. On July 4, 2012, the two teams of scientists working on the LHC announced that they had found something that looked a whole lot like the Higgs.
Some have suggested that the authors of yet another independent formulation of the idea are equally deserving of the Nobel Prize. G.S. Guralnik of Brown University, C.R. Hagen of the University of Rochester and Tom Kibble of Imperial College London published their paper just a month after Higgs.
Today’s announcement ended months of speculation about who would share the prize money, worth $1.25 million, and which names would join luminaries such as Einstein and Bohr. To paraphrase one of the newest Nobel laureates, Englert and Higgs certainly were not undeserving of the prize.
*Correction, October 8, 2013
Originally, this article incorrectly named one of the winners of the Nobel Prize as “Francois Engelert.” The article has been changed to reflect the correct name, “Englert.”