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Higgs boson theorists win Nobel Prize in physics

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013 2:00 p.m. CST

Nearly 50 years after they proposed identical theories on how subatomic particles acquire mass, two European physicists were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their conceptual research into the enigmatic Higgs particle.

Francois Englert, 80, of Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs, 84, of Britain, were awarded the prize about 15 months after scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, confirmed the particle’s existence amid great fanfare.

“The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed,” read a statement from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, announcing the prize. “The entire Standard Model also rests on the existence of a special kind of particle: the Higgs particle.”

Englert, of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, and Higgs, of the University of Edinburgh, had conducted their research independently of each other, and met for the first time last year.

Another theoretical physicist, Robert Brout, had collaborated with Englert, but died in 2011.

At a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday, Englert recalled his late colleague.

“It was a very long collaboration, it was a friendship. I was with Robert until his death,” Englert said.

“Of course I am happy to have won the prize, that goes without saying, but there is regret too that my colleague and friend … is not there to share it,” Englert said.

While Englert entertained the press by joking that he thought he had been passed over for the award when the scheduled announcement got off to a late start, the famously private Higgs remained as elusive as his eponymous particle Tuesday.

Academy officials acknowledged that they were unable to reach Higgs by telephone to inform him of the honor, and ultimately resorted to sending him an email.

Higgs later issued a prepared statement through the University of Edinburgh.

“I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy,” the statement read. “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 Higgs particle — which has also been dubbed the Higgs boson and the God particle — captured the public’s imagination, if not its understanding, throughout the summer of 2012.

It was on July 4 of that year that about 3,000 researchers used CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, perhaps the largest and most complex machine ever constructed by man, to extract the Higgs particle from billions of particle collisions.

According to theory, the particle originates from an invisible field that permeates all space.

“Even when the universe seems empty this field is there,” read the academy statement. “Without it we would not exist, because it is from contact with the field that particles acquire mass.”

Among those institutions toasting Tuesday’s award was Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Since 2011, Englert has served as a distinguished visiting professor at the university’s Institute for Quantum Studies.

“The entire Chapman community joins me in congratulating Prof. Englert for this achievement,” Chancellor Daniele Struppa said in a statement. “His discoveries have revolutionized the field of physics, and his work continues to break new ground.”

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