Higgs, who is British, and Englert, who is Belgian, were two of the key figures involved in the development of a theory which explains how fundamental particles (i.e. what physicists had formerly believed to be the smallest particles in existence) get their mass. The theory, first developed in 1964, outlined the existence of a ‘missing’ particle that had formerly been omitted from the Standard model of physics. This particle is now known to us as the Higgs boson, and was discovered last year at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. And so it is that half a century after he published a theory with the potential to change the way we perceive our world, Peter Higgs has been rewarded.
Higgs, 84 and Englert, 80 will share the £775,000 prize between them, although Higgs himself has proved to be quite an unreachable figure, opting to take an impromptu holiday – without a phone or any form of contact – without notifying his co-workers or the Nobel committee, in a bid to avoid the inevitable media storm following the announcement of the winners.
Alan Walker, Higgs’ physics colleague at the University of Edinburgh, said that “[Higgs] is taking a break from all of this, taking some time to relax, because he knows when he comes back he’ll have to face up to a media storm.”
“I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy. I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle and to thank my family, friends, and colleagues for their support. I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
The discovery of the Higgs boson at the Cern Large Hadron Collider was the culmination of decades of work from a team of thousands, and involved creating a highly sophisticated 17-mile-long circular tunnel over the course of a decade. The collider sought to recreate the immediate aftermath of the big bang from which the universe was formed. Immediately after the big bang, particles were formed which travelled at the speed of light as they carried no mass. But just a billionth of a second later, an invisible field located in the vacuum of space ‘switched on,’ interacting with these elementary particles and giving them mass. These particles include quarks and electrons, which make up atoms, and by recreating this at the Large Hadron Collider, the team was able to prove that the Higgs boson was indeed the reason explaining how fundamental particles get their mass.