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Researches Who Theorized 'God Particle' Get Physics Nobel


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded this morning to two scientists from Europe. Both men independently proposed the existence of the so-called "god particle" as part of a mechanism to explain how the universe works. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, the award was expected but one winner is nowhere to be found.

GEOFFREY BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: This Nobel Prize has been a long time in coming. The work that won it was done way back in 1964 by three physicists: a British scientist named Peter Higgs, who works at Edinburgh University; and two researchers out of Belgium, named Francois Englert and Robert Brout. Brout passed away a few years ago, and both Higgs and Englert are in their 80s.

The Prize committee had no problem contacting Englert this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you there with us, Professor Englert?

FRANCOIS ENGLERT: Yes, I am on the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good day and congratulation. How do you feel right now?

ENGLERT: Well, thank you very much. I feel very well, of course.

BRUMFIEL: But Peter Higgs was nowhere to be found.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Actually, we tried quite hard to get hold of him, but of all the numbers we tried, he did not answer.

BRUMFIEL: This was surprising because everybody thought that Higgs was going to win this year. Whether it's referred to as the Higgs mechanism, the Higgs field, the Higgs boson, the theory - literally - has his name all over it. In the time since Higgs and Englert first proposed it, it's become a fundamental part of physics. Today, physicists believe the Higgs mechanism is literally everywhere.

JOE INCANDELA: You could almost think of it as a liquid, a liquid you can't see.

BRUMFIEL: Joe Incandela is a researcher at Cern, the big particle physics lab in Switzerland. This liquid has a unique property. It can focus the energy of certain subatomic particles. According to Einstein, energy equals mass - E=MC squared - so the Higgs mechanism gives particles like electrons mass.

INCANDELA: This field, this mechanism that was described in the field, made it possible for the electron to have mass and atoms to exist - and for us to exist.

BRUMFIEL: But until last year, there was no proof it actually existed. It was just a set of equations. Then, last summer, physicists at Cern announced they'd finally detected a particle called the Higgs boson. It was the smoking gun. Incandela headed one of the teams that made the discovery, and they were all watching on giant screens at the laboratory when the Nobel announcement was made.

INCANDELA: Before they can even finish his last name, the place erupted into huge applause.


INCANDELA: Everyone, as far as I can tell, has smile on their face today. It's a great day for us.

BRUMFIEL: But in the midst of all this, where is Peter Higgs? His personal assistant, Alan Walker(ph), says he doesn't know.

ALAN WALKER: My assumption is, he is somewhere in Scotland.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) At an undisclosed location?

WALKER: Well, it's a location I don't know.

BRUMFIEL: Walker says Higgs doesn't like the limelight. He hasn't told anyone where he is. It's even possible he doesn't know he's won the prize.

WALKER: And I don't know whether he has a radio with him. He certainly doesn't use a mobile phone, unless he's got one without my knowledge. And he may well be somewhere which may or may not have a TV. So who knows?

BRUMFIEL: But if Higgs doesn't know he's won, he'll find out soon. The University of Edinburgh had already scheduled a press conference for Friday, just in case. Peter Higgs has promised to be there.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoffrey Brumfiel