Elusive Higgs wins physics Nobel, shared with Englert

2019-03-13 12:19:02

By Jacob Aron (Image: Martial Trezzini/epa/Corbis) When you have waited nearly 50 years, what’s another hour? As New Scientist and many others predicted, Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, UK, and François Englert of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, have won this year’s Nobel prize in physics for developing the theory of how particles acquire mass. The announcement in Stockholm, Sweden, came after a short delay, perhaps because the Nobel committee was conducting its own Higgs hunt. While the Higgs boson gets all the glory, it is the Higgs field that gets particle physicists excited. It interacts with each of the fundamental particles in different ways, giving them mass. For instance, the W and Z bosons experience the Higgs field as a thick treacle, making them some of the heaviest fundamental particles while the photon doesn’t feel its influence at all, so is massless. The Higgs boson is a quantum ripple in the field whose existence proves that the field exists. Englert and his late colleague Robert Brout were the first to describe how this field might operate, but it was Peter Higgs who first predicted the particle that bears his name. The Nobel committee awarded them the prize “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles”, and also gave a nod to the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN for the actual discovery of the Higgs last year. Brout is not eligible for the prize, as the Nobel is not awarded posthumously, while theorists Richard Hagen, Gerald Guralnik and Tom Kibble were not recognised, despite some calls for that to happen. “I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy,” said Higgs in a statement. He is rumoured to be on holiday without a phone, to avoid media attention. “We tried quite hard to get hold of him, but all the numbers we tried he didn’t answer,” said Staffan Normark of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Instead they sent him an email. Normak would not confirm whether this was the reason for the delay, saying only that the Nobel Academy makes its final decision on the prize today and no sooner. “You may imagine this is not very unpleasant, I’m very, very happy,” said Englert in reaction to the award. He also revealed that he and Higgs had only met for the first time at CERN when the discovery of the boson was revealed, though the pair have met since. “I’m going to congratulate him because I think he did important and excellent work.” Although the discovery of the Higgs boson confirms the theoretical mechanism, physicists are still trying to fully understand the particle. Initially, they referred to it as “a Higgs-like particle”, cautious that not all of the boson’s predicted properties had been confirmed. In March this year it got upgraded to “a” Higgs – not “the” Higgs – when the particle was confirmed to give mass to W and Z bosons. The LHC at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, is shut down until 2015 for an upgrade to higher collision energies, which could reveal further details. “There are a few big questions [remaining],” said Englert this morning. For instance, the theory of supersymmetry predicts that all particles – including the Higgs – have heavier partners. The hope is that higher energy collisions will in time reveal some of these. More on these topics: