Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general at the European Organization for… (Salvatore Di Nolfe / Associated…)
They call it the "God particle." It holds the key to humanity's presence on Earth — indeed, to the existence of all the matter in the universe.
Feuding nations have set aside their differences and devoted billions of dollars to finding it. Scientists built massive supercolliders capable of producing temperatures nearly as frigid as the coldest spots in outer space in their quest to unravel its secrets. Even then, it took nearly half a century to get a glimpse of the thing.
Now, in a crowning moment, two theoretical physicists have won the Nobel Prize in physics for having the gumption to envision that such a thing might have existed in the first place.
Way back in 1964, Belgium's Francois Englert and Britain's Peter Higgs independently theorized the existence of a subatomic particle that came to be known as the Higgs boson. It was key to explaining how things acquired mass, and became a cornerstone of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics.
The award was widely anticipated. To the winners, it seemed something of an afterthought following the dramatic announcement on July 4, 2012, that the Higgs boson had been found.
"I'm very happy," said Englert, now 80, after the prize was announced Tuesday morning in Stockholm. "What can I say more?"
The reclusive Higgs, 84, limited his response to a 59-word statement posted on the website of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he is an emeritus professor of theoretical physics.
"I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research," he wrote.
Many of the thousands of scientists who participated in the quest were more visibly excited about the award. They gathered in the atrium of the building in Switzerland that houses the Higgs-hunting teams at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, to listen to the announcement from Stockholm.
"When they mentioned Francois Englert's name the whole place erupted in applause and shouts," said UC Santa Barbara physicist Joseph Incandela, who led one of the CERN teams. "The same was repeated when we heard 'Peter Higgs' called out."
"Everyone just wanted to celebrate," he said in a statement released by the university. "We popped champagne bottles and drank toasts and everyone congratulated everyone."
As scientists homed in on the elusive particle last summer, it became a pop culture phenomenon, parodied by the likes of Stephen Colbert and even transformed into a cuddly plush doll with a sideways grin.
That would have been hard to imagine in the early 1960s, when scientists were making headway on the Standard Model. The theory describes the subatomic particles that are the basic building blocks of the universe, along with how they interact.
But theorists had a problem: Their equations only worked if particles had no mass. That was an impossibility in a universe loaded with stuff such as stars, planets and people.
Englert, along with collaborator Robert Brout, and Higgs each wrote separate papers that came up with a possible solution. They imagined that the universe might be permeated by an invisible field that essentially slowed particles down, imparting them with mass and allowing the world around us to exist.
"This one idea made all the equations work," said Robert Cousins, a physicist at UCLA.
The hypothesized field was eventually known as the Higgs field. If it existed, it would also be associated with a particle, which came to be known as the Higgs boson.
Over the years, numerous experiments supported the existence of a Higgs field, or something very much like it. But Englert and Higgs would not get complete recognition for their insight until scientists were able to detect a Higgs boson.
Physicists study subatomic particles by smashing beams of other particles at super-high speeds and analyzing the shrapnel that results from the collisions.
Scientists had an idea about what types of shrapnel they needed to see to confirm that the Higgs boson was real. But it was only with the construction of CERN's Large Hadron Collider near Geneva that they had the power they needed to see a Higgs boson, said Vivek Sharma, a particle physicist at UC San Diego who spent years commuting back and forth to Switzerland.
Earlier colliders, including Fermilab's Tevatron in Illinois, didn't have the juice. But experimental physicists thought that CERN's more energetic collider could do the job.
Sure enough, two large experiments known as CMS and ATLAS collected data that essentially confirmed the existence of a Higgs boson. That provided the evidence the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences needed to make the award to Englert and Higgs, the Nobel committee said.
Sharma, who led the CMS Higgs search, compared the predictions to a Dr. Seuss book he often read to his young daughter.