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Higgs boson work leads to one Nobel Prize. Could there be another? (+video)

Two physicists won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their theories 50 years ago on the Brout-Englert-Higgs field and its particle, the Higgs boson, which scientists reported discovering last year.

By Staff writer / October 8, 2013

British physicist Peter Higgs arrives for a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland in July 2012. Francois Englert and Peter Higgs were awarded the Nobel physics prize on Tuesday.

Denis Balibouse/AP/Pool

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The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to two physicists, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, who independently proposed the mechanism that gives subatomic particles their mass.

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Describing how subatomic particles get mass wins Nobel physics prize for Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain for theory on how the most basic building blocks of the universe acquire mass.

Without this mechanism, physicists say, subatomic particles would ping around the universe at the speed of light without interacting and forming atoms and molecules, the building-blocks of matter.

In announcing the award on Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Drs. Englert and Higgs for their work on what has become known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs field and its related particle, the Higgs boson.

In 1964, Englert and his colleague, the late Robert Brout, proposed that space was permeated by a field that imparted mass to particles moving through it. A particle's mass depended on how strongly it interacted with this field – the stronger the interaction, the more massive the particle.

Higgs offered a similar explanation and predicted that the field would have a particle associated with it. The particle became known as the Higgs boson. The prediction triggered a nearly 50-year quest among experimental physicists to find the particle.

Find it they did. On July 4, 2012, two international teams of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research announced that they had discovered the particle at the facility's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Last March, the teams announced a higher level of confidence in their detection based on additional data their cathedral-scale detectors at the collider had amassed in the interim.

Sifting through the debris of some 2,000 trillion collisions at the accelerator – an underground race-track for protons accelerated to nearly the speed of light – researchers uncovered evidence for 1,500 Higgs bosons fleetingly created by the collisions.

"I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Academy," Higgs said in a prepared statement issued by the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor emeritus.

In issuing the award, the Academy used a unique turn of phrase that suggested to some that the body might be open to issuing another prize at some point for the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The Academy noted that the prize was "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles," and went on to mention the work at CERN confirming Higgs's prediction.

"The term 'theoretical' has never been used before with discovery," observes Lawrence Sulak, a physicist at Boston University whose team contributed key instruments for one of the two massive detectors at the LHC, known as the CMS detector.

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