It would be difficult either to overstate the implications of Professor Peter Higgs’s theorising, or to welcome too warmly his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday.
In 1964, he and two Belgian colleagues – Francois Englert and Robert Brout – published a paper setting out a mechanism by which subatomic particles might acquire mass. So began a five-decade hunt for the Higgs boson, the existence of which would solve one of the thornier questions in theoretical physics. And with its discovery in 2012, thanks to the atom-smashing power of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, our understanding of the world around us changed forever.
For the uninitiated, it is tricky to grasp in anything but notional terms either the Higgs boson itself or the even more elusive Higgs field which it implies. What we can understand, however, is that without them the universe would, quite simply, not exist. The uncounted billions of particles created at the Big Bang would still have been created. But they would have remained a massless burst of radiation tearing through space at the speed of light. Of matter, as we know it, there would be none.
Until this gap was bridged – thanks to the ingenuity, graft and sheer brilliance of Professor Higgs and his counterparts – there was a gaping hole at the heart of the so-called “Standard Model” upon which modern particle physics relies.
That gap is now filled. Scientists may dislike the “God particle” moniker. Given that the Higgs boson binds the universe together, creating order from the chaos, it is appropriate enough, however.
It is also appropriate that those who first suggested where to look are suitably recognised. Sad to say, Professor Brout, who died in 2011, misses out on his share of the recognition. But Professors Higgs and Englert have now been honoured by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with a joint Nobel Prize. Deservedly so.