Physicists have expressed their delight in the decision to award the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics to the scientists behind the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs and François Englert share the 930,000 award for their theoretical predictions of the mysterious particle almost 50 years before it was actually discovered.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made its decision know yesterday in Stockholm. Higgs (84), of the University of Edinburgh, and Englert (80), of the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, made predictions about the existence of the Higgs particle back in 1964.
It was not until the construction of the 4 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Europe's nuclear research centre Cern and the analysis of data coming from it that the centre was able to confirm the discovery of a Higgs-like particle in July 2012. Final confirmation that the find was "the" Higgs came only last March.
"I am overwhelmed to receive this award," said Higgs, who is known to shun the limelight and did not appear in public yesterday despite winning the world's top science prize. "I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research," he said in a statement via the University of Edinburgh.
Asked how it felt to be a Nobel winner, Englert told reporters by phone: "You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant, of course. I am very, very happy to have the recognition of this extraordinary award."
The search for the Higgs was a central mission for those involved in particle physics, the study of the small components that fit together to form atoms. As the scientists peeled back the layers and identified more of these subatomic particles, they began piercing them together in the Standard Model, a puzzle that attempted to describe how everything from an atom to a star fit together.
The Higgs and Englert theories predicted one particle that would bind together all others, one that acquired Higgs' name along the way. It remained elusive, however, because no atom smasher at the time had the energy needed to deliver a Higgs boson until the building of the LHC.
This was a "fantastic day for physics", said Dr Ronan McNulty, lecturer in physics at University College Dublin and the head of an Irish experimental research group working at Cern. "This award vindicates the farsightedness of the member states of Cern in building the LHC and is a tribute to the mechanism by which science advances, from the profound insights of Brout, Englert and Higgs, through worldwide collaboration, to the discovery of a new fundamental particle."
"What Peter Higgs [and Englert] did coming up with a theory that comes up with this particle, and then experimentally building a machine to confirm something that was written on a scrap of paper, is a huge achievement for theoretical physics," said Prof Peter Gallagher of Trinity College's school of physics. "It is a deserving award."
The importance of the Higgs was "fundamental" to particle physics, said Dr Asaf Pe'er, lecturer in high energy astrophysics at University College Cork. "It was one of the cornerstones of the standard model."
Irish Commissioner for Research Máire Geoghegan-Quinn congratulated the winners as did the Cern director general, Rolf Heuer.