Higgs Hoopla: Two Physicists Nab a Nobel Prize

Nearly 50 years after Francois Englert and Peter Higgs did their work, they were recognized by science's top award for helping to explain why the universe exists

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Science is full of famous pairs: Salk and Sabin, Watson and Crick, Orville and Wilbur. We know who they are, we know what they did, we feel incomplete saying the name of one without the other. But Higgs and Englert? Not so much, at least not until today, when the two were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics. The global applause they’re suddenly enjoying is well past due—49 years past due by some accountings.

It was in 1964 that François Englert, now 80, and Peter Higgs, now 84, effectively saved the universe—if not from destruction then from irrationality. The existence of mass is not a sure thing, even in a cosmos like ours that is so full of gas and dust and what Carl Sagan memorably called stuff.  Something must confer mass, giving energetic particles what we think of as solidity. That something, Englert reasoned in a 1964 paper—which he co-authored with phycisist Robert Brout, who died in 2011 and was thus not eligible for Nobel consideration—had to be a field of some kind that fills the entire cosmos, providing resistance to objects passing through it. And that field, Higgs concluded in separate research, also published in 1964, must be permeated by  a type of particle known as a boson.

(PHOTO: Interactive Panorama: Step Inside the Large Hadron Collider)

In the decades that followed, science explicators burned through no shortage of metaphors trying to explain how the things that became known (no doubt to Englert’s and Brout’s consternation) as the Higgs field and the Higgs boson worked. The field was like a great wind, they said. The higher the energy of a massless particle passing through it, the higher the resistance it encounters, and that would confer mass. The Higgs bosons are like paparazzi surrounding a celebrity, others explained. The greater the fame the bigger the crowd—and again, the greater the mass. The particle and field, still others say, are like molasses on snow, causing, well, a kind of cosmic clumping.

(MORE: TIME Talks to the Physicists Who Found the Higgs)

But metaphors get you only so far without proof, and in the summer of 2012, that at last came, thanks to the Large Hadron Collider, the $10 billion particle accelerator that inscribes a 17-mi. (27 km) circle across the French-Swiss border. The whole point of colliders is to accelerate particles to as close to light speed as possible—in the case of the LHC, 99.9999991% of the way there—and then smash them together, releasing energies that simulate the conditions only trillionths of a second after the Big Bang. This produces more-elementary particles that flash into and back out of existence only fleetingly, but that’s long enough for collider instruments to detect their presence. If the Higgs boson existed, it was in that tiny interval that it would show its face, and the evidence would be arcane but unmistakable: a spike in energy in the range of 115 to 135 billion electron volts—or gigavolts (GeV)—with the bullseye at about 125 GeV.  The LHC hit that target.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigmas, in the mass region of 126 GeV,” announced Fabiola Gianotti, head of one of the LHC research teams, on July 4, 2012. The reference to sigmas indicated the scientists’ level of certainty in their findings, and a score of five is close to a sure thing. By any reasonable measure, the existence of the Higgs field and a Higgs particle had been proven—and when the Nobel Committee made its announcement today, it did not understate the significance of what Englert and Higgs have contributed to science:

“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed. The entire Standard Model also rests on the existence of a special kind of particle: the Higgs particle. This particle originates from an invisible field that fills up all space. Even when the Universe seems empty this field is there. Without it, we would not exist.”

Englert and Higgs themselves barely existed in the hoopla surrounding today’s announcement. Englert did participate in a conference call with reporters and said, with an exquisite understatement that befits the pure empiricist, “You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant. I’m very happy to have this extraordinary reward.” Higgs, in a statement released by the University of Edinburgh, where he is still an emeritus professor, said, “I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy. I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”

(MORE: The Cathedral of Science)

He’ll get his wish. The LHC will continue to do its work and the particles will go on getting smashed, with physicists looking for possible ways the boson could shed light on such mysteries a dark energy (the force that pulls the universe apart) and perhaps even gravity. “Oh my dear,”  LHC and Caltech physicist Maria Spiropulu said to TIME last summer, “there will be approximately 2,000 papers next week connecting the Higgs to dark energy. Theorists are beasts like that.”

If so, they’re a peculiar kind of beast—the kind that labor ferociously to answer questions so obscure none of us even know to ask them and yet so primal that the answers explain why we’re here at all. Too often, the physicists do that work invisibly, anonymously—until suddenly, on a day like today, we all know who they are.