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‘God particle’ theorists receive Nobel Prize in physics

The Higgs boson is what gives all matter its mass and is a central part of scientific theory

CNN News Wire | 10/8/2013, 1:33 p.m.
The Large Hadron Collider is a circular tunnel located 100 meters (328 feet) underground, which uses a particle accelerator to collide protons at extreme speeds. European Organization for Nuclear Research

The Higgs boson, or the “God particle,” which was discovered last year, garnered two physicists the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday, but it didn’t go to the scientists who detected it.

Nearly 50 years ago, Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of the United Kingdom had the foresight to predict that the particle existed.

Now, the octogenarian pair share the Nobel Prize in physics in recognition of a theoretical brilliance that was vindicated by the particle’s discovery last year.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to them.

Higgs and Englert’s theories behind the elusive Higgs boson explained what gives matter its mass.

The universe is filled with Higgs bosons. As atoms and parts of atoms zoom around, they interact with and attract Higgs bosons, which cluster around them in varying numbers.

Certain particles will attract larger clusters of Higgs bosons, and the more of them a particle attracts, the greater its mass will be.

The explanation helped complete scientists’ understanding of the nature of all matter.

“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed,” the Royal Swedish Academy said in a post on Twitter.

As is tradition, the academy phoned the scientists during the announcement to inform them of their win. They were unable to reach Higgs, for whom the particle is named.

The conversation with Englert was short and sweet. “I feel very well, of course,” he said, when he heard the news. “Now, I’m very happy.”

The discoverers

When the Nobel announcement came down, the Higgs boson’s discoverers in Geneva, Switzerland, broke out the champagne, said lead physicist Joe Incandela.

“The place erupted into applause.” There must have been over 100 people in the room at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, he said.

Many of them were American scientists. About one quarter of the physicists involved in the discovery came from the United States.

The researchers felt equally recognized alongside the Nobel recipients. They were not expecting to receive the prize themselves. That would have been atypical.

It goes more often to those involved on the theoretical side and not on the experimental side, Incandela said. But it didn’t matter.

“We’re extremely happy with that,” he said. “I’m elated. We feel that we’ve been recognized.”

The fact that the prize was awarded to the theorists so soon after the particle’s existence was detected by experimenters is a confirmation of the value of their contribution, Incandela said.

The discovery

The July 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson in the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, has been billed as one of the biggest scientific achievements of the past 50 years.

But the Royal Academy passed over the Higgs boson last year, to the surprise of many.

The scientists, in the meantime, have confirmed their discovery and solidified its place in science.

On March 14, what would have been Albert Einstein’s birthday, they announced that, over time, the particle they found looked even more like the Higgs boson they had been chasing for almost 50 years.