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Englert and Higgs bag Nobel Prize for Physics

08 Oct 2013 Hamish Johnston
Higgs and Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel prize

The 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for the theoretical discovery of the Higgs boson. The prize is worth SEK 8m (£775,000) and will be shared by the pair, who will receive their medals at a ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December.

Englert is a Belgian citizen and is Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Higgs is a British citizen and is Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Edinburgh.

According to the prize citation, the pair are honoured “for the 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”.

In 1964 Englert and Higgs published papers independently of each other that set in motion the 48-year search for the Higgs boson that ended with its discovery last year at CERN.

Winners didn’t meet until 2012

Speaking on the telephone to journalists in Stockholm, Englert said that winning the prize was “Not very unpleasant, of course. I am very, very happy to have the recognition of this award.” Englert also mentioned that the first time he met his co-winner Higgs was at CERN on 4 July 2012 when physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs particle.

Permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Staffan Normark, said that the committee has so far been unable to contact Higgs. However a statement from Higgs has been issued by the University of Edinburgh. He says: “I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy. 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.”

Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism

Commenting on the award, CERN’s director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer says “The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year, which validates the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world.” Heuer’s comment highlights the contributions of the late US/Belgian physicist Robert Brout, who co-authored Englert’s 1964 paper and who was his long-time colleague at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Brout died in 2011 and the Nobel prize is not awarded posthumously.

Several other physicists are also associated with the discovery of the Higgs mechanism, including Carl Hagen, Gerald Guralnik and Tom Kibble, who together published a paper in late 1964 in which they independently came to the same conclusions as Brout, Englert and Higgs. Commenting on the award, Kibble acknowledges that “our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published in Physical Review Letters in 1964…and it is therefore no surprise that the Swedish Academy felt unable to include us”. In an interview with Physics World in 2012, Higgs was also keen to flag the contributions of the US theorist Philip Anderson.

Symmetry-breaking event

The existence of a Higgs-like mass-generating mechanism plays an essential role in the Standard Model of particle physics. It arises from a symmetry-breaking event that occurred in the very early universe that created a uniform scalar field known as the Higgs field that pervades all space. Elementary particles such as leptons, quarks and the W and Z bosons conveying the weak force “acquire” their distinctive masses by virtue of their unique and different couplings to this field.

Wave–particle duality at the heart of quantum mechanics dictates that vibrations in this field should give rise to a spin-0 particle (or particles) known as the Higgs boson(s). Just as vibrating the electromagnetic field generates waves corresponding to photons, so should shaking the Higgs field create such bosons. The question that faced particle physicists over the past decades was how hard did the Higgs field need to be shaken in order to create detectable quantities of Higgs bosons? The answer came in 2012, when physicists analysed vast numbers of proton–proton collisions at 8 TeV and found very strong evidence for the Higgs boson.

Peter Higgs was born in 1929 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. He attended Cotham Grammar School in Bristol, which also counts Nobel laureate Paul Dirac as one of its former pupils. He enrolled as a physics undergraduate at King’s College London, where he went on to do a PhD on the theory of molecules. Higgs then worked at several British universities before settling at the University of Edinburgh, where he has been since 1960.

François Englert was born in Belgium in 1932 in the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek. He received a degree in electrical engineering from the Université Libre de Bruxelles before completing a PhD in natural sciences in 1959 at the same university. Englert then worked at Cornell University in the US for two years before returning to the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he has been since 1961.

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