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For Higgs and Englert, 50 years of patience pays off

Professor François Englert (L) and Professor Peter Higgs (R) at their first meeting at CERN in 2012. Image courtesy of CERN
Professor François Englert (L) and Professor Peter Higgs (R) at their first meeting at CERN in 2012. Image courtesy of CERN

Belgian Professor François Englert and British Professor Peter Higgs received the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 for their work that led to the idea of a mass-giving particle, almost fifty years after they first published their theories.

The Nobel Committee in Stockholm announced on 8 October 2013 that the two European theoretical physicists would share the EUR 900 000 prize for ‘the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles’.

Prof. Higgs, 84, said in a statement released by the University of Edinburgh, where the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics is based: ‘I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.’

Both scientists, working independently, published in 1964 separate scientific articles related to the mechanism that governs mass in subatomic particles.

Prof. Englert, 80, with his now deceased friend and colleague Professor Robert Brout, from the Brussels Free University, were the first to publish; Prof. Higgs did the same some weeks later.

About 20 years on, work started on the world’s biggest particle smasher which would confirm their findings. The 27 kilometre Large Hadron Collider (LHC) under the border between Switzerland and France accelerates beams of particles using electric fields and then smashes them together to examine the basic particles that result from the impact.

Three years after the EUR 3 billion LHC was completed, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced that it had discovered a particle that might be the Higgs boson.

Since then it has released new data that indicates the new particle is a Higgs boson.

‘I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.’

Prof. Peter Higgs

European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, congratulated both physicists, and paid tribute ‘to the thousands of scientists who have worked tirelessly at CERN over many years to detect this elusive particle’.

The European Union has supported the work at CERN through its research programme, while the European Investment Bank helped finance the construction of the LHC.

CERN is currently taking part in 95 projects under the EU’s FP7 funding programme running from 2007 to 2013, with an EU contribution of more than EUR 100 million.

In Geneva, CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer said: ‘The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year, which validates the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world.’

Banana toast

Despite Higgs and Englert being the favourites to win this year’s prize, Englert told a news conference in Brussels that he at first believed he had not won because of a delay in announcing the result.

A simulation of data produced during a collision on the LHC. Image courtesy of CERN.A simulation of data produced during a collision on the LHC. Image courtesy of CERN.

Laureates typically receive a phone call from Stockholm an hour before the public announcement, but as Englert had not received a call he assumed he had not won.

‘So, with my grandchildren, we decided that we should anyway have a party at home and that I was entitled to receive the prize of … the best banana toast maker of the family. I am quite good at making them actually,’ Englert said.

‘Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, I received a call from the Swedish Academy of Science and the official announcement took place. And I was of course really honoured and very happy, as you can imagine,’ he said.

Even though the two scientists worked on the same problem, they never met until last year at a conference at CERN, where the LHC is located.

‘Next time I see him, I will of course congratulate him. Because I think he did important and excellent work,’ Englert said.

What is a Higgs boson?

The Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that gives other particles mass, according to the Standard Model of particle physics.

According to the Standard Model, which represents current understanding of how the basic building blocks of matter interact, basic particles need something to give them mass.

Theorists Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs made a proposal that was to solve this problem. What we now call the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism gives a mass to some particles, known as bosons, when they interact with an invisible field, called the ‘Higgs field’, which is believed to pervade the universe.

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