Almost five decades ago, two scientists developed a theory that helps explain the nature of the basic building blocks of the universe. Now, after years of study and experimentation, they have won the most prestigious award in their field—the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The scientists are Peter Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and François Englert, 80, of the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. In 1964, the pair hypothesized, or made an educated guess, that an invisible field existed throughout the universe. Scientists now call it the Higgs field.
Higgs and Englert believed the Higgs field was responsible for giving mass, or substance, to some of the tiny particles that make up matter. Matter is another word for all the stuff in the universe. It is anything that has mass and occupies space.
If Higgs and Englert’s theory was correct, the Higgs field should produce an unusually heavy particle called the Higgs boson. The idea sent physicists on a nearly 50-year-long hunt to find the particle. They finally succeeded in July 2012.
SEARCH FOR A MYSTERIOUS PARTICLE
Atoms, the most basic units of matter, are made up of even smaller particles. According to Higgs and Englert, some of these particles get their mass by passing through the Higgs field.
The key to proving the theory was at CERN, a research facility in Geneva, Switzerland. The facility contains the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a special machine made up of a giant ring that’s 27 kilometers (17 miles) around.
Scientists use the LHC to smash particles together. These collisions release all sorts of different particles. Using a special process, researchers tried to produce a Higgs boson. After millions upon millions of attempts, they finally created and identified these special particles.
A NOBEL PURSUIT
Nobel Prizes are awarded each year for outstanding achievement not only in physics, but also in chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economic sciences. The prizes, named after Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, have been handed out since 1901. Each winner receives a medal, a diploma, and a cash award. This year, the award amount is $1.2 million per prize.
“I am overwhelmed to receive this award,” Higgs said in a statement through the University of Edinburgh. “I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle.”