Mt. Vernon Register-News

Top News

October 8, 2013

Higgs, Englert win Nobel Prize in physics for 'the God particle'

WASHINGTON — The entire physics community anticipated Tuesday that Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences would bestow a Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic particle that plays a crucial role in the fabric of the universe. But who, exactly, would get the honor? The aging theorists who dreamed it up back in 1964? Or the mostly younger experimentalists who last year said they'd found it?

The academy went with the theorists — two of them, at least. The new Nobel laureates are 84-year-old Englishman Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, and Francois Englert, 80, of Belgium. That left out in the cold several other theorists who could plausibly claim to have deserved the honor as well.

Englert materialized by voice Tuesday morning in a teleconference after the announcement in Stockholm and did not sound particularly surprised as he answered a few questions about enduring unknowns in physics (dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity). But a Nobel committee official said no one had been able to reach Higgs, despite multiple phone calls. The committee had also emailed him the news.

"I am overwhelmed to receive this award," Higgs said in a statement released by the University of Edinburgh. "I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research."

The Higgs boson, once dubbed by scientist Leon Lederman as "the God particle," is associated with an invisible field that is part of the basic infrastructure of the cosmos. The mass of particles is determined by how they interact with this field.

The Nobel committee said it gave the prize to Englert and Higgs "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."

Rarely has a Nobel Prize announcement arrived with so much hype and anticipation. Everyone in the physics community knew that the prize could go to someone involved with the Higgs particle. It was as if the prize would be the final validation of the discovery, which was announced on July 4, 2012.

"This is great for physics. It's great for science. The story is fantastic," said Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society. "They answered a question that's so simple and so basic that few people asked it — why do things have mass?"

"These gentlemen did this work in 1964, and they had to wait half a century to see it come to fruition," said Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. "The Nobel committee has done a very fair job on a very difficult decision."

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist and author of the book "Higgs Discovery," said the prize was well-deserved and noted the "heroic efforts" of the experimentalists who found the particle.

More questions about the Higgs remain to be answered, she said: "Looking forward, we want to know the resolution to the so-called hierarchy problem, the question of why the Higgs boson isn't 16 orders of magnitude heavier, as our theory of quantum mechanics and special relativity would predict."

Although the physics community expected that the prize would recognize, in some fashion, the discovery of the Higgs particle, no one knew how the Nobel committee would apportion the credit. Without the experimental work, no one today would likely be talking about the theories of the 1960s. But the efforts at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN involved thousands of scientists and engineers, including many from the United States.

Turner, the APS president, said Tuesday, "Discoveries more and more involve a village. It took 10,000 people and $10 billion and 20 years to build the instrument that made this discovery, and you'd be hard pressed to narrow that group down even to 100, let alone to three."

There were six theorists, including Englert and Higgs, who have been widely credited with the theoretical framework that led to the discovery of the new particle. Of the six, five are still alive (the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously). The Nobels by tradition are awarded to no more than three people.

Englert published first in 1964, co-authoring a paper with Robert Brout, and was followed soon thereafter by Higgs. Brout died in 2011. The American physicist Gerald Guralnik has written an account of his own work in 1964, in collaboration with Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble.

"It stings a little," Guralnik, a professor at Brown University, said Tuesday morning, but he did not belabor the fact that he and his two collaborators had been bypassed by the royal academy.

"I'm not surprised. It was pretty clear how this was shaping up. I would be lying if I didn't say I'm a bit disappointed. All in all, it's a great day for science. I'm really proud to have been associated with this work that has turned out to be so important," Guralnik said.

Guralnik said they had arrived at their theory independently in 1964 but had been overly cautious in submitting their work for publication. With their paper already sealed in an envelope and ready to be mailed to a scientific journal, they saw pre-prints of the two papers by Englert/Brout and Higgs, and briefly added to their own paper an acknowledgment of the other theoretical work without considering it to be terribly significant or accurate.

"Frankly we didn't even take them very seriously at the time. We thought they missed the main point," Guralnik said.

Hagen on Tuesday did not attempt to hide his disappointment at being bypassed, and alluded to the academy's tradition of granting a prize to no more than three people.

"Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an evenhanded judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook," Hagen, of the University of Rochester, said in an email. "Not a graceful concession by any means, but that department has never been my strong suit."

"There is no question that Higgs and Englert deserve this. The only question would be how exactly they made the decision to exclude the other three," said Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, the world tuned in to the Nobel Internet feed at 11:45 a.m. Stockholm time — 5:45 a.m. Eastern time — only to see an enigmatic announcement on the screen: The announcement is a few minutes delayed.

This went on for an hour. It was unclear if the delay was due to the committee's inability to reach Higgs and tell him the news. He has previously said he would not be available for interviews in association with the prize announcement.

1
Text Only
Top News
  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

  • bomb1 VIDEO: A year after marathon bombing, Boston remains strong

    The City of Boston came together Tuesday to honor those who were injured and lost their lives at the Boston Marathon on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. While the day was sure to be emotional, those affected by last year's race are showing they won't let the tragedy keep them down.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Search teams will send unmanned sub to look for missing Malaysian airliner

    Teams searching for a missing Malaysian airliner are planning for the first time to send an unmanned submarine into the depths of the Indian Ocean to look for wreckage, an Australian official leading the multi-nation search said Monday.

    April 14, 2014

  • 25801486.jpg VIDEO: Northern California bus crash kills 10

    At least nine people died in Northern California on Thursday night, in an accident involving a bus, a car and FedEx truck. The bus was filled with high school students from Southern California who were on their way to visit a college campus.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: CBS taps Colbert as Letterman’s Late Show successor

    Bloomberg’s Jon Erlichman reports that CBS has announced Stephen Colbert as its choice to replace the retiring David Letterman as host of “The Late Show” on Bloomberg Television’s “Lunch Money.”

     

    April 10, 2014

  • Teen stabs 20 at Pittsburgh-area high school

    MURRYSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Flailing away with two knives, a 16-year-old boy with a "blank expression" stabbed and slashed 19 students and a police officer in the crowded halls of his suburban Pittsburgh high school Wednesday before an assistant principal tackled him.

    April 9, 2014

  • Fast, cheap test can help save lives of many babies

    As Easley did more research into her daughter's death, she learned that a pilot program had started just months earlier at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. (Easley had delivered at a different hospital in the Washington area.) The program's goal was to screen every newborn with a simple pulse oximeter test that can help detect heart problems such as Veronica's, allowing doctors to respond.

    April 8, 2014

  • 297px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svg.png Why Starbucks won't recycle your paper coffee cup

    When you drop that used white paper cup into the bin next to the door at a Starbucks, have you done your part to save the planet? Starbucks has long hoped that you would think so. After all, there's no better way to attract an affluent, eco-conscious clientele than to convince customers that your disposable product is "renewable."

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • Don't blame voters for low turnout

    Suppose nobody votes this year. On Nov. 4 the doors to the polling places are thrown open, and there isn't anyone in line. No absentee ballots are filed. No one litigates, charging either fraud or discrimination, because there weren't any voters.
    It won't happen. But if it did, pundits and activists would surely blame public apathy for such a catastrophe. I'd name a different culprit: the major parties, their candidates and their acolytes in the news media.

    April 4, 2014

  • Former McDonald's store managers say they withheld employees' wages

    Two former McDonald's store managers, assisting with a campaign to raise pay for fast-food workers, said they helped withhold employees' wages at the restaurant chain after facing pressure to keep labor costs down.

    April 2, 2014

AP Video