Higgs, Englert Win 2013 Nobel Physics Prize

Britain's Peter Higgs and Belgium's Francois Englert won the prize for predicting the existence of the Higgs boson. That's the particle key to explaining why elementary matter has mass. The two will share the $1.25 million prize.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Two physicists have won the Nobel Prize for physics for proposing the existence of what is commonly known as the God Particle, or properly known as the Higgs boson, part of a mechanism that explains how the universe works at the most fundamental level. And here to explain is NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So we need you to explain this to us. But first, tell us the names. Who are the winners?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the first winner is Peter Higgs. He's 84 years old, from the University of Edinburgh. And in 1964 he predicted this mechanism that would explain why some particles have mass and others don't. Independently, and at nearly exactly the same time, a Belgian physicist named Francois Englert and his recently deceased colleague, Robert Braut, came up with the same idea. And so Englert and Higgs are sharing the prize today.

MONTAGNE: Right. Although we do think of it, I believe, as the Higgs - what, mechanism? The Higgs particle?

BRUMFIEL: Right, exactly. So yes, Higgs got his name attached to it. And yeah, most people have heard of this particle. It's sometimes called the God Particle, which really drives physicists nuts. But what it actually is, is it's a mechanism made of two parts. There's a Higgs particle and a Higgs field. And this field is kind of like a magnetic field. It permeates space. And it affects other particles and it gives them mass. So subatomic particles like electrons - maybe you've heard of quarks. They're the little things inside protons and neutrons, they get their mass from the Higgs.

But the other thing that the Higgs mechanism does, which physicists are actually a little more interested in, is they're trying to create this sort of unified theory of everything. They want one mathematical equation that explains the universe. And Higgs doesn't go all the way, but it brings their equations closer together. It actually unifies two of the four fundamental forces we know about. And so that's why a lot of physicists are very excited about the Higgs.

MONTAGNE: Well, a lot of people were expecting the Higgs to win this year, but why this year in particular?

BRUMFIEL: Well, last year, on July 4, as a matter of fact, at a particle accelerator in Switzerland, they actually made some of these Higgs particles for the very first time. Until now, this has all been theory. It was just something people had written down on paper. And so even though people thought Higgs and Englert deserved the prize, they weren't going to give it to them until they actually saw the particle.

That happened last year. Higgs is now 84. Englert is 80. So I mean, you know, they're getting up there. And it was pretty obvious that they were going to have to award this prize as soon as they could.

MONTAGNE: The winners, of course, must be happy. But have they responded so far?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, well, they got Englert on the phone and he was ecstatic, of course, to have won. But Peter Higgs is missing in action. Higgs is notoriously media-shy. He hates the limelight. And so I spoke to a colleague of his earlier this morning and he has gone away. He doesn't have a cell phone. He's nowhere to be found. The Nobel Committee couldn't even get a hold of him to let him know he won.

But if Higgs - if Higgs was around, I think what he'd say is, yeah, he's very happy to win the Nobel Prize, of course, but what really excited him, what really was sort of the most important moment for him was when they found this Higgs particle last year. I mean, think about it. He wrote these equations down on paper back in 1964. This is almost 50 years ago. And in intervening years thousands of physicists gathered together, they built this giant particle accelerator that costs billions of dollars, and now they've seen this thing he predicted. It was such a big undertaking that Higgs several times has said he didn't think it was going to happen in his lifetime, and when they made the announcement, he had tears in his eyes.

And I think for him, I mean that surely must have been the best thing at all. Nothing could beat it.

MONTAGNE: With news of this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thanks, Renee.

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