Englert, Higgs win 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for theoretical discovery of mass

This Nobel Prize was nearly 50 years in the making. Back then, Professor Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh and Professor Francois Englert of the Free University of Brussels had the theoretical foresight to predict that the Higgs boson (commonly known as the “God particle”) would help explain what gives mass to matter. Last year, their prediction became reality when a proton-proton collision was created at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, demonstrating the characteristics of a Higgs boson particle’s decay.

The discovery is being celebrated as one of the most important scientific achievements of the past 50 years, “a central part of scientific theory,” notes CNN. While the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics did not go to the scientists who discovered the Higgs boson at CERN, it did go to the octogenarians who envisioned it so many years ago. Without the theory, how many more years would have gone by without an explanation for mass?

As the Royal Swedish Academy (who doles out the Nobel Prizes) suggested on Twitter: “The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed.”

Why is the Higgs boson so important?

At its simplest level, the Higgs boson matters because it helps explain mass. Everything that exists has mass, from plants to animals to humans to planets and beyond. Without it, we wouldn’t exist. As explained by Theoretical Physicist Brian Greene from Columbia University, “Higgs boson is part of the Higgs field, which permeates the universe.” This field is akin to a “molasses-like bath that’s invisible, yet we’re all immersed within it.”

Particles, such as electrons, move through this bath, and when they do, they meet resistance. When this resistance occurs, they join with the Higgs bosons that cluster around them in varying degrees of mass, creating life. Of course, this is a highly oversimplified explanation, but one begins to see just what the fuss is about at a layman’s level.

What makes the discovery so poignant is that the two Nobel Prize winners Englert and Higgs predicted its existence and then Higgs boson was found, not the other way around, as is so often typical in science. Notes CNN: “They didn’t see an abnormality and wonder what it was. The particle confirms notions about the universe that had only been calculated, but not directly observed.”

Celebrations in Switzerland

Not surprisingly, when the Nobel Prize winners for Physics were announced, the champagne started flowing in Switzerland, home of  CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and site of the Large Hadron Collider. More than 100 scientists from a variety of countries (including the United States) had gathered for the announcement and broke out into wild applause when it came, many having worked on the experiment that detected the Higgs boson. There was a feeling in the room, noted one participant, that they were all sharing in the prize and “felt recognized” for their work.

In March 2012 on what would have been the birthday of Albert Einstein, it was announced that a particle that could be Higgs boson was detected, and the discovery was confirmed by July of last year.

Upon the announcement of his Nobel Prize for Physics, Peter Higgs thanked the Swedish Academy and expressed his feelings of gratitude. According to the Huffington Post, he also suggested, “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.” It may have taken 50 years, but the riddle of the 1960s, why matter has mass, had finally been answered.