8 Oct 2013

Professor Peter Higgs shares the Nobel Prize for physics

After a very unusual one hour delay, this year’s Nobel Prize for physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for the discovery of the Higgs boson.

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“This year’s prize is about something very small that makes all the difference,” said Staffan Normark, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, as he announced the winners.

Since it was first postulated by Prof Englert, Peter Higgs and four other physicists back in 1964, the hunt for the Higgs boson – the particle which gives everything in the universe mass – has dominated particle physics.

It was finally discovered by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva last year.

Speculation is that the delay in announcing the prize was due to the committee making the obligatory congratulatory phone call were unable to reach Peter Higgs.

Today he has proved as elusive as the fundamental particle that now bears his name.

His home institution, Edinburgh University, says it has no idea where he is. Colleagues saying the octogenarian theoretician is “away on holiday without a phone”.

Peter Higgs was born in Newcastle in May 1929. He began his scientific career as an experimental physicist at King’s College London but it became clear early on his real talents were as a theoretician — a chalk and blackboard scientist.

One of the greatest challenges of particle physics at the time was to explain how the emerging menagerie of fundamental particles had any mass.

There was nothing observed by experimentors or dreamt up by theoreticians that could explain why anythng in the universe had mass.

Because we, planets, stars, galaxies and everything else are living proof there is mass – it was a bit of a serious problem.

The “Higgs boson” was the particle dreamt up by Peter Higgs in 1964 that could, theoretically speaking, confer that mass on all the other particles.  And so began one of the greatest hunts in the history of science.

It culminated in the construction of the £7bn Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Centre for Particle Physics (Cern) in Geneva designed, in part, just to find it.

When last year, the particle was finally confirmed to exist,  it was almost inevitable that the men from Stockholm would be calling.

But there has been, and will always be controversy about who deserved the prize for the discovery of the Higgs. It’s a question that has caused acrimony among its discoverers and may explain the reluctance of Peter Higgs himself to appear in public.

The idea that underpins the Higgs boson was first put forward by François Englert and fellow Belgian Robert Brout in August 1964. A month later, Peter Higgs published a paper suggesting a type of particle called a boson (the one which would later bear his name) was the mechanism by which mass could be conveyed.

A couple of months after that three other physicists from Imperial College London further refined the theory.

All six (Brout is now deceased) are credited by physcists for “discovering” the Higgs particle.

But according to the rules of the Nobel Prizes only a maximum of three can be given a prize.

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