Higgs Theorists Win Physics Nobel in Overtime

Physics laureates. Peter Higgs (left) and François Englert.

Wikimedia Commons, ULB

The most eagerly anticipated and potentially controversial Nobel Prize for physics in many years was awarded today—following a nail-biting hourlong delay—exactly according to the expected script: The winners are Peter Higgs and his fellow theorist François Englert for, essentially, predicting the Higgs boson. The winners were much heralded following last year’s discovery of the Higgs by physicists at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, using its Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

That finding put in place the last piece of the puzzle to complete the standard model of fundamental particles and forces nearly 50 years after Higgs, Englert, and others predicted the existence of the elusive particle. "You may imagine this is not very unpleasant, of course," Englert told reporters after the announcement. “I am very happy to have the recognition of this extraordinary award.” Higgs, of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, said in a statement released by the university that he was “overwhelmed to receive this award.”

Few contest that Higgs and Englert are worthy winners, but, as often happens with Nobel Prizes, it is the “others” that make the prize controversial. It was Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, both at the Free University of Brussels, who first published a theory in August 1964 of how to give force-carrying particles mass without wrecking the symmetry that was key to the quantum field theories at the heart of the standard model. Higgs published his version 7 weeks later. But then in November a third group, made up of Tom Kibble of King’s College London; Gerald Guralnik, now at Brown University; and Carl Hagen, now at the University of Rochester in New York, published a third version, considered by many the most thorough and complete.

So there are six people with a claim to the prize, although Brout died in 2011. Nobel Prize rules do not allow it to be awarded to more than three people, and it cannot be awarded posthumously. Following last year’s discovery of the Higgs, many physicists felt that it was time to reward these researchers for their achievement, especially as some of them are now in their 80s. But which ones?

The scheduled time for the announcement, 11:45 a.m. Stockholm time today, came and went. Journalists and officials waited for more than an hour, without explanation, before members of the Nobel physics committee came out. The laureates are chosen on the day of the announcement, Olga Botner of Uppsala University in Sweden, a member of the committee, explained in an interview afterward. “There was a discussion, a very good discussion,” she said.

Frank Close, a theorist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, says there was huge tension building during the wait. “After 50 years, it was worth waiting another hour,” he says. Confirmation of the theory is “a seminal moment in culture,” Close says. “The fact that we are all immersed in some mysterious stuff [the Higgs field] is amazing, and that we can do the experiment to verify that is also astonishing.” But Close thinks this award should also be dedicated to “a triumph of engineering”: the LHC. The fact that it was built, that it works, and that it did what it was designed for in discovering the Higgs boson should be celebrated. “It is experiment that decides what reality is,” he says.

Close acknowledges the disappointment for the third group of theorists who missed out on the prize. “They were scooped,” he says. But he thought that Kibble would be named as a third laureate because he went on to explain in another solo paper in 1967 how to keep photons massless in the new theory, work that paved the way for another Nobel Prize for the electroweak force in 1979. That paper “was as profound as the whole lot,” Close says, and Kibble “had been there throughout [the development of the theory].” Kibble says that, because of his group’s later publication, “it was very difficult to include us. But I’m glad they’ve recognized this topic as it is a very important one.”