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.
They are Peter W. Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and Francois Englert, 80, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.
In the 1960s, they were among several physicists who proposed a mechanism to explain why the most basic building blocks of the Universe have mass.
The mechanism predicts a particle – the Higgs boson – which was finally discovered in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, in Switzerland.
The universe is filled with Higgs bosons. As atoms and parts of atoms zoom around, they interact with and attract Higgs bosons, which cluster around them in varying numbers. Certain particles will attract larger clusters of Higgs bosons, and the more of them a particle attracts, the greater its mass will be.
The Higgs boson is the last piece of the Standard Model of physics that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe.
Some commentators – though not scientists – have called it the “God particle”, for its role in turning the Big Bang into an ordered cosmos, says Reuters.
The insight has been hailed as one of the most important in the understanding of the cosmos. Without the Higgs mechanism all particles would travel at the speed of light and atoms would not exist.
“I am overwhelmed to receive this award,” said Higgs, who is known to shun the limelight and did not appear in public on Tuesday despite winning the world’s top science prize.
“I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research,” he said in a statement via the University of Edinburgh where he works.
“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed,” the Royal Swedish Academy said in a post on Twitter.
The two scientists had been favorites to share the 8 million Swedish crown ($1.25 million) prize after their theoretical work was vindicated by the CERN experiments.
Fabiola Gianotti, who led one of the teams at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, called the prize “a great emotion and a great satisfaction,” adding that it was nice that the experiments were cited in the award. “The young physicists are superexcited.”
The history of the discovery dates back to 1964, when six physicists, working independently in three groups, published a flurry of papers. The first were Belgians Robert Brout, who died in 2011, and Englert, who proposed a mechanism by which a mass-giving field of particles invaded the early Universe, which until then was filled only with massless particles.
Englert told reporters in Brussels Tuesday that his reaction at getting the prize was joy mixed with more complex emotions. “There is regret too that my colleague and friend, Robert Brout, is not there to share it,” he said.