Englert and Higgs win top physics prize for explaining how matter acquires mass

BY Jenny Marder  October 8, 2013 at 12:05 PM EDT

CERN scientists celebrate after the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

Britain’s Peter W. Higgs and Belgium’s Francois Englert jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for explaining how fundamental particles acquire mass.

Or more specifically,

“for the theoretical discovery 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.”

Their theories, which described a ghostlike energy field that gives mass to the smallest particles, paved the way for the discovery of the Higgs boson, or Higgs particle. That discovery was confirmed last year at CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, to applause and rowdy cheers rivaling those at a football match.

Both Higgs and Englert, who independently proposed theories on the origin of mass in 1964, were in the audience that day. In fact, that was the first time the two met, according to this Wall Street Journal report.

The Higgs boson is responsible for giving mass to other particles, and, by extension, stars and planets, rocks and flowers, and everything on Earth including us, making it key to all life and matter as we know it. It represents the final, critical puzzle piece to the Standard Model of particle physics that explains how the world is constructed.

But it took nearly half a decade after Higgs and Englert’s theories were proposed to confirm the presence of the Higgs boson and required thousands of scientists and the construction of the world’s largest and most complicated machine, the Large Hadron Collider, smashing subatomic particles together at unimaginably high speeds.

For background, here’s the NewsHour’s discussion with Guardian Science correspondent Ian Sample from July 2012.

Author and Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample explains the Higgs boson and why its discovery is so fundamental to understanding particle physics.

The Higgs field permeates all of space, and as particles swim through the field, they take on mass; some, like quarks, more than others. The photon, for example, doesn’t acquire mass at all.

“Even if space were to be emptied completely, it would still be filled by a ghost-like field that refuses to shut down: the Higgs field. We do not notice it; the Higgs field is like air to us, like water to fish…,” reads a statement released by the Nobel committee. “If the Higgs field suddenly disappeared, all matter would collapse as the suddenly massless electrons dispersed at the speed of light.”

For more background, here’s our explainer on the Higgs boson and how it works.

Related Links:

What the ‘Rock Star’ Discovery of the Higgs Boson Means for Science

Discovering Higgs Boson: the Thrill and Drama of the Waiting Game

Physicists Discover Clear Evidence of Elusive Higgs Boson

Just Ask: Hunt for Higgs Continues; Scientists Work to Separate the ‘Signal from the Noise’