Higgs and Englert Are Awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

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The "God particle" became the Prize particle on Tuesday.

Two theoretical physicists who suggested that an invisible ocean of energy suffusing space is responsible for the mass and diversity of the particles in the universe won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday morning. They are Peter Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and François Englert, 80, of the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

The theory, elucidated in 1964, sent physicists on a generation-long search for a telltale particle known as the Higgs boson, or the God particle. The chase culminated in July 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland.

Dr. Higgs and Dr. Englert will split a prize of $1.2 million, to be awarded in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said the prize was "for the discovery of the mechanism that contributes to understanding the origin of the mass of subatomic particles."

"You may imagine that this is not unpleasant," Dr. Englert said in an early morning news conference.

The academy has not yet been able to contact Dr. Higgs, who said before that he would not be available Tuesday. In a phone call Tuesday morning, Alan Walker, a physicist and friend of Dr. Higgs, said that he had gone off by himself for a few days without saying where, and that he would return on Friday. He said he did not know if Dr. Higgs, who does not use a cellphone or a computer, knew he had won the Nobel.

Dr. Higgs, he said, is a modest man, who likes his own company and the ability to come and go without a fuss. He suspect, Dr. Walker added, that this is not going to be the case. Even before the announcement, he said, one journalist had already invaded Dr. Higgs' building looking for an interview. "He was sent away with a flea in his ear," Dr. Walker said.

The prize had been expected ever since physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider announced on July 4, 2012, that they had discovered a particle matching the description of the Higgs, setting off headlines and sending Champagne fountains flowing around the world. Thousands of particle physicists worked on the project, and for many of them the Nobel is a crowning validation.

"I'm thrilled that this year's Nobel Prize has gone to particle physics," Rolf Heuer, CERN's director general, said in a statement.

But it came with a dose of disappointment for some. The notion of this energy ocean, now known as the Higgs field, arose in three papers published independently in 1964.

One was by Dr. Higgs. Another was by Dr. Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, who died in 2011. The third paper was by Tom Kibble of Imperial College, London; Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester; and Gerald Guralnik of Brown University. It came last and its authors have struggled to get recognition. Last week, Dr. Hagen allowed that he had little expectations for Tuesday, and he was right.

"The Swedes followed the script (and their rule book) -- which from my perspective does not make for a happy outcome," Dr. Hagen said in an e-mail Tuesday morning.

The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, and traditionally no more than three people have been permitted to share a single prize.

R. Sekhar Chivukula, a Michigan State professor who chaired a committee that awarded the American Physical Society's prestigious Sakurai prize to all six of the theorists in 2010, called the failure by the Nobel committee to recognize the work of Drs. Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik "a significant oversight."

Steven Weinberg, of the University of Texas, Austin, who won a Nobel Prize in 1979 by making the Higgs boson the centerpiece of a theory that united two of the basic forces of nature (electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force), said he was enthusiastic about the award, saying the citation had gotten things exactly right, but added, "I think it's a pity" that Drs. Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble had not been represented.

The Higgs was the last missing ingredient of that theory, a suite of equations that has ruled particle physics for the last half century, explaining everything from the smell of a rose to the ping when your computer boots up. According to this model, the universe brims with energy that acts like a cosmic molasses, imbuing the particles that move through it with mass, the way a bill moving through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous and controversial.

Without the Higgs field, all elementary particles would be massless and would zip around at the speed of light. There would be no atoms and no us.

As Dr. Higgs once told The Guardian newspaper: "It has consequences. If it wasn't there, we wouldn't be here."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 8, 2013 2:00 PM


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