For their development of a theoretical mechanism that describes the origin of mass in subatomic particles, François Englert, an emeritus professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), in Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, have been honored with the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Working independently, Englert and Higgs and their coworkers proposed their seminal theory in 1964. Confirmation of the theory rested upon discovery of the so-called Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle that was finally detected in 2012 by two instruments at the Large Hadron Collider, the high-energy proton collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located near Geneva.
The Higgs particle was long described as the missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics. The model describes the fundamental forces of nature and the basis of interactions between subatomic particles. The mass theory developed by Englert, Higgs, and the late Robert Brout, also of ULB, explains mathematically the way subatomic particles acquire mass through their interactions with a pervasive but invisible force field.
In July 2012, researchers announced that measurements made in their proton-proton collision experiments confirm that the Higgs boson had been detected. Each of the experiments involved several thousand physicists from around the world who helped build and operate the instruments and analyze the massive data sets.
“I’m very, very happy to have this recognition,” Englert said by phone at the press conference announcing the 2013 physics prize. In a statement released by the University of Edinburgh after the conference, Higgs remarked, “I am overwhelmed to receive this award.” Englert and Higgs will share the $1.2 million prize money.
Confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson “is extremely significant because it completes the verification of the Standard Model,” says Jonathan D. Lewis, a staff scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Without the Higgs boson, all particles would be massless, Lewis explains. Nonetheless, physicists’ work isn’t finished. Fundamental questions regarding dark matter, dark energy, and antimatter remain unanswered, he says.