Drs. Peter Higgs and François Englert have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work in identifying and discovering the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" that could explain how the universe's elementary particles obtained their mass shortly after the Big Bang. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners at a press conference held this morning in Stockholm, Sweden, following an unusually lengthy delay. The two will share a prize of 8 million Swedish krona (about $1.2 million) that will be awarded at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.
Higgs, an 84-year-old British professor at the University of Edinburgh, predicted the existence of the particle that would bear his name in 1964, when he laid the framework for the Higgs mechanism. Englert and Dr. Robert Brout, Belgian physicists at the Free University in Brussels, actually "beat" Higgs by two weeks with a 1964 paper outlining the existence of an invisible forcefield that endows elementary particles with mass. They stopped short of identifying the particle associated with this forcefield, as Higgs did, though Englert and Brout would later argue that its existence was implied by their work.
"I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy," Higgs said in a statement published on the University of Edinburgh website following Tuesday's announcement. "I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle and to thank my family, friends, and colleagues for their support. I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research."
Englert expressed similar sentiments in a telephone interview with reporters at today's press conference. "You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant," the professor said. "I am very, very happy to have [the] recognition of this extraordinary reward... What more can I say?"
"You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant."
In July 2012, researchers at CERN announced that they had identified a particle consistent with the Standard Model Higgs boson, after conducting a series of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. CERN has yet to confirm that the particle is indeed the Standard Model Higgs boson, though in March the organization said it is increasingly likely that it is a Higgs boson of some kind.
"It is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is," Joe Incandela, particle physicist and project spokesperson, said at the time. "Finding the answer to this question will take time."
The Nobel committee was widely expected to honor the Higgs boson saga with this year's award, though there was some uncertainty as to how it would do so. There are at least six theoretical physicists who played a role in identifying the particle, in addition to the thousands of CERN scientists who likely identified it with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). But the Nobel Prize has traditionally been awarded to no more than three living people, leading many to wonder how the committee would divide the award among five viable candidates. (Brout, the Belgian physicist, died in 2011 and is therefore ineligible.)
"You meet many physicists who will tell you how good they are. Peter doesn't do that."
Described by the New York Times as "the JD Salinger of physics," Higgs has developed a reputation for being a modest and somewhat reluctant academic. He has long downplayed his role in identifying the boson that bears his name, praising instead the work of others who contributed to its discovery. Unlike his co-prize winner, Higgs did not participate in today's press conference; the committee said they tried contacting him by phone this morning, but the professor did not respond.
"He's modest, and actually almost to a fault," Dr. Alan Walker, a physicist and colleague at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian this week. "You meet many physicists who will tell you how good they are. Peter doesn't do that."
First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prize in physics is one of five awards handed out each year, as established in the will of Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895. Notable winners of the physics award include Pierre and Marie Curie (1903), Albert Einstein (1921), and Richard Feynman (1965). Drs. Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland won the prize last year for their work in measuring and manipulating individual quantum systems. They also shared a monetary award.
The full impact of Englert and Higgs' work remains unclear, though experts agree that the discovery of the boson could dramatically alter the way we perceive the world.
"When electricity was discovered, no one knew the globe would fairly quickly be blanketed with lightbulbs," Dr. Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist, wrote in a 2011 piece for Newsweek. "When quantum mechanics was discovered, no one anticipated semiconductors and the ensuing electronics revolution. It’s still unclear what a discovery of the Higgs boson will mean in 10 or 20 or 100 years’ time, but cultures where people learn more about their world, and science is valued, seem to fare well in the end."