Higgs: Five decades of noble endeavour

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

image captionPeter Higgs and Francois Englert first published their ideas in 1964

Fifty years is a long time to wait for recognition of a brilliant idea. But this is the burden that Peter Higgs and Francois Englert have had to bear since they first proposed a mechanism to describe how matter in the Universe acquires mass.

Englert and fellow Belgian Robert Brout were first to publish their ideas in August 1964. Higgs followed in October.

The view - certainly, the one expressed by the Nobel committee on Tuesday - is that their papers were independent and indistinguishable, and that their work should therefore be jointly honoured.

Of course, it is the standard practice not to award a Nobel posthumously, and so it is only Higgs and Englert who take the limelight, as their peer in this great endeavour, Robert Brout, died in 2011.

Every advance owes something to previous generations - even Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants; and sometimes it takes the insights of those who follow to truly see the implications.

Prof Tom Kibble from Imperial College London probably falls into this latter category. His work with Americans Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen is regarded as being instrumental in the eventual application of the ideas expressed by Higgs, Englert and Brout.

"As you probably know, there were three groups working on this problem back then, but everyone's work in 1964 received essentially no attention at all, apart from the scepticism of various people," he recalls.

"The papers had hardly any citations for two or three years."

If the Nobel committee's rules permitted more than three recipients per gong then the Imperial man could well have been standing in front of Tuesday's TV lights as well. As it is, he's applauding from the wings and proud to do so.

"I'm just really pleased they've recognised this work and this field," he told me.

image captionThe giant CMS detector at the LHC which helped to confirm the Higgs idea

Particle physics is not the easiest subject to grasp for the lay audience, but a great many of us have come to absorb a vague concept of what the Higgs field and its associated boson entail - however fumbling.

It is this notion that the Universe contains an all-pervasive field that elementary particles - the fundamental building blocks of matter - must traverse; and it is the drag these particles experience as they pass through the field that determines their mass. The boson is the thing that mediates the interactions.

The maths may be beyond most of us, but everyone can appreciate that without an adequate description of mass - the very essence of stuff - then the cosmos can make no sense. There would be no form, no substance.

The key reason it has taken nearly 50 years to prove the Higgs mechanism is that only now do we have an experimental set-up capable of nailing its existence.

Others tried, but it took the scale and energy of the $10bn Large Hadron Collider to find the evidence.

This colossal underground machine accelerates clutches of proton particles to fantastic speeds around a ring, colliding them in full view of sensitive detectors positioned at two widely separated locations.

image captionStaff at Cern celebrate a great day

Only about one collision in every trillion produces a trace of the Higgs boson, and even then it is a process of deduction because all the scientists actually see are the products into which the particle decays.

But the two independent detector sites confirmed each other's observations, and the boson was duly announced to great fanfare in July 2012.

"It is absolutely apt that it is recognised by a Nobel; it is one of the great discoveries of the 21 Century," says Prof Jim Virdee, another Imperial scientist and former spokesperson for one of those LHC detectors, the CMS experiment.

"One has to put it in some perspective. Our Standard Model [to describe how the basic building blocks of matter interact] wasn't built in a day. The first particle, the electron, was discovered by Thompson in 1897, and the Higgs is the last particle of the Standard Model - the 17th. So it was an enormous endeavour."

Not that this is the end of the story. The LHC has barely got going and other discoveries are virtually guaranteed as it crashes together proton particles at ever greater energies.

"The LHC is a tremendous development," says Kibble. "We could never have pictured the experimental work that has burgeoned from those theoretical efforts in the 1960s."

Which does raise the interesting question of why the LHC itself, its host institution Cern, and the thousands of scientists who work there, could not also be recognised in some form.

The Nobel committee's rules for the physics prize do not seem to allow for this, but there is the precedent of another scientific body - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - being given the Nobel peace prize in 2007.

Some have speculated that Cern would also be a very worthy recipient of this gong.

"Cern has as one of its objectives to bring nations together through science," says Prof Virdee.

"It's certainly a remarkable human achievement to get so many people from so many different countries, cultures and creeds working together in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge. It's very uplifting."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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