Oct. 8: The God particle became the prize particle today.
Britain’s Peter Higgs and Francois Englert of Belgium won the Nobel Prize for physics for predicting the existence of the Higgs boson particle that explains how elementary matter attained the mass to form stars and planets. (See chart)
The insight has been hailed as one of the most important in the understanding of the universe. Half a century after the scientists’ prediction, the new building block of nature was finally detected in 2012 at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) giant underground particle smasher near Geneva, called the Large Hadron Collider.
Asked how it felt to win the Nobel, Englert, 80, said over the phone: “You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant, of course. I am very, very happy.”
“I am overwhelmed to receive this award,” said a statement from the reclusive Higgs, 84, the J.D. Salinger of physics whom even the Nobel failed to lure into a public appearance.
“I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
The Higgs boson is the last piece of the Standard Model of physics that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe, and has been dubbed the “God particle” for its role in turning the Big Bang into an ordered cosmos.
As Higgs once said, the Higgs boson “has consequences — if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here”.
Higgs and Englert had been favourites to share the $1.25m (Rs 7.7 crore) prize but some physicists were surprised that there was no recognition for the CERN teams that discovered the particle, since there had been speculation of a prize for CERN as an institution.
Swedish dynamite millionaire Alfred Nobel’s will limits the prize to a maximum of three persons (and bans posthumous awards), harking back to an era when science was conducted by individuals or very small teams.
However, thousands worked on detecting the particle at CERN and a total of six scientists published three relevant papers in 1964.
Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011, were the first to publish but Higgs followed just a couple of weeks later and was the first to explicitly predict the new particle’s existence.
The third paper was by US researchers Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik and Britain’s Tom Kibble.
Kibble said it was no surprise that he and his colleagues were not included in the Nobel honour since “our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published… though we naturally regard our treatment as the most thorough and complete”.
R. Sekhar Chivukula, an American professor who chaired a panel that awarded the prestigious Sakurai prize to all the six theorists in 2010, called the Nobel committee’s failure to recognise the work of Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik “a significant oversight”.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the prize went to Higgs and Englert for work fundamental to describing how the universe is constructed: “According to the Standard Model, everything, from flowers and people to stars and planets, consists of just a few building blocks: matter particles.”
CERN director-general Rolf Heuer said he was “thrilled” that the Nobel had gone to particle physics.
The cost of the Higgs boson hunt was astronomical: the Large Hadron Collider is a 27km underground tunnel that cost some $10 billion to build and run.
Was the expenditure worth it? While there haven’t been any practical applications from the particle’s discovery, the massive effort that led to it has paid off in other ways.
CERN researchers helped develop the World Wide Web to store and exchange ideas. The vast computing power needed to crunch all the data produced by the Large Hadron Collider boosted the development of cloud computing, which has found its way into mainstream web applications.
Advances in solar energy capture, medical imaging and proton therapy to fight cancer have been among the other gains.
Now, scientists trying to understand the universe are grappling with other mysteries such as the nature of dark matter, which accounts for more than a quarter of the universe, and dark energy, which is believed to be the driver of cosmic expansion.