The whole of CERN was elated today to learn that the Nobel Prize for Physics had been awarded this year to Professors François Englert and Peter Higgs for their theoretical work on what is now known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism. This mechanism explains how all elementary particles get their masses.
CERN had good reason to celebrate, since last year on 4 July, scientists working on LHC experiments proudly announced the discovery of a new particle, which was later confirmed to be a Higgs boson. This particle proves that the theory Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs developed, along with others, in 1964 was indeed correct.
The Higgs boson discovery was essential to establish their theory so we are all happy to see their work (and to some extent, our work) acknowledged with this prestigious award.
It took another decade before Steve Weinberg, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1979, saw the full implication of their work while unifying two fundamental forces, the electromagnetic and weak forces, as Peter Higgs explained in July at the European Physical Society meeting of the Particle Physics division, where he gave a highly appreciated presentation. There he detailed the work of all those who preceded him, including Englert and Brout, in bringing key elements that enabled him to conceive his own work.
Peter Higgs recalled how it all began with pioneering work on “spontaneous symmetry breaking” done by Yoichiro Nambu in 1960 (for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 2008). Nambu himself was inspired by Robert Schrieffer, a condensed matter physicist who had developed similar concepts for the theory of superconductivity with John Bardeen and Leon Cooper (1972 Nobel Prize).
Spontaneous symmetry breaking is central in the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism rewarded today by the Swedish Academy of Science.
Jeffrey Goldstone then introduced a scalar field model often referred to as the “Mexican hat” potential while another condensed matter theorist, Philip Anderson (Nobel Prize in 1977) showed how to circumvent some problems pointed out by Goldstone.
Then, Englert and Brout published their paper, where the mechanism was finally laid out. Peter Higgs, who was working entirely independently from Brout and Englert, had his own paper out a month later with a specific mention of an associated boson. Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen soon after contributed additional key elements to complete this theory.
“I had to mention this boson specifically because my paper was first rejected for lack of concrete predictions”, Peter Higgs explained good-heartedly in his address last summer. This explicit mention of a boson is partly why his name got associated with the now famous boson.
The history of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism just goes to show how in theory just like in experimental physics, it takes lots of people contributing good ideas, a bit of luck but mostly great collaboration to make ground-breaking discoveries.
The thousands of physicists, engineers and technicians who made the discovery of the Higgs boson possible at the LHC are also all celebrating today.
To find out more about the Higgs boson, here is a 25-minute recorded lecture I gave at CERN on Open Days
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