Physics Nobel Prize 2013: Scotland’s Own Peter Higgs

Don't try this one: Professor Peter Higgs with a description of the Higgs model.The Latest Physics Nobel Prize Laureate

The Physics Nobel Prize was awarded on 8 October 2013 to Edinburgh University-based scientist Peter Higgs for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism crucial to our understanding of the origin of everything…

At the end of the 19th century, many people considered Physics as the foremost of sciences.  Perhaps chemical engineer Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) saw it in this way too, and that is why Physics was the first prize area which he did mention in his will.

 

Rewarding Human Endeavour

Alfred Nobel’s own research was closely related to physics, and he remains notorious for his invention of the dynamite in 1867.  But Nobel was keen to be remembered for better reasons than his work on explosives for the armament industry.  He decided set aside the largest part of his fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, awarded each year, regardless of nationality.

A picture showing a Nobel medal.The prestigious Nobel award was created in his honour, and the much-prized gold medal bears his likeness.  The original total sum of 31,225,000 Swedish kronor was to be split five-ways between the five different Nobel Prizes.  At the time, this converted to £ 1,687,837.  Nowadays, the capital is worth around SEK 3.1 billion ($ 472 million, EUR 337 million).  Around £ 286,000,000.  Almost twice the amount of the initial capital, when taking inflation into consideration.

The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Since 1901, the Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded 107 times to 195 different laureates.  Among those Nobel laureates are such illustrious and distinguished scientists as:

1901 – Wilhelm Röntgen, “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him”.

1902 – Hendrik Lorentz, “in recognition of the extraordinary service they rendered by their researches into the influence of magnetism upon radiation phenomena”.

An old black and white photograph showing Marie and Pierre Curie in their lab.
Marie Curie and Pierre Curie

1903 – Antoine Henri Becquerel, “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity”.

Also that year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the very first time to a woman, the great lady of Physics: Marie Curie, née Sklodowska, and her husband Pierre Curie, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”.

1906 – J.J. Thompson, “in recognition of the great merits of his theoretical and experimental investigations on the conduction of electricity by gases”.

1907 – Albert Michelson, “for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid”.

1910 – Johannes Diderik van der Waals, “for his work on the equation of state for gases and liquids”.

1911 – Wilhelm Wien, “for his discoveries regarding the laws governing the radiation of heat”.

1918 – Max Planck, “in recognition of the services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta”.

A historical black and white photograph showing Niels Bohr in conversation with Albert Einstein.
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, circa 1920.

1921 – Albert Einstein, “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.

1922 – Niels Bohr, “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them”.

1923 – Robert Millikan, “for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect”.

1925 – Gustav Hertz, “for his discovery of the laws governing the impact of an electron upon an atom”.

1927 – Arthur Compton, “for his discovery of the effect named after him”.

1929 – Louis de Broglie, “for his discovery of the wave nature of electrons”.

1932 – Werner Heisenberg, “for the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of which has, inter alia, led to the discovery of the allotropic forms of hydrogen”.

1933 – Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac, “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”.

1938 – Enrico Fermi, “for his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons”.

1945 – Wolfgang Pauli, “for the discovery of the Exclusion Principle, also called the Pauli Principle”.

 

A Constellation of Eminent Minds

A black and white photograph showing a young Richard Feynman performing one of his lectures.
Richard Feynman

1960 – Donald Glaser, “for the invention of the bubble chamber“.

1963 – Maria Goeppert Mayer, the second woman to be awarded the Physics Nobel prize, “for discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure”.

1965 – Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”.

1969 – Murray Gell-Mann, “for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions”.

1978 – Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, “for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation”.

1983 – Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars”.

1997 – Steven Chu, “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light”.

2010 – Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene“.

2013 – François Englert and Peter Higgs

 

A historical photograph showing Belgium physicist Francois Englert in conversation with British physicist Peter Higgs - the discoverers of the Higgs boson.Nobel Prize 2013

The latest Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded on Tuesday 8 October 2013 to Edinburgh University-based scientist Peter Higgs, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”.  He shares the 8-million Swedish kronor prize (£ 775,000) with François Englert, a Belgian theoretical physicist (seen here on the left, in conversation with Peter Higgs), a mere 50 years after initially theorising the field that gives fundamental particles their mass!

For Peter Higgs, it has been a long time coming…

 

Shy, but Brilliant

At the age of 84-year-old, the emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh has earned the most prestigious scientific credentials:

  • Dirac Medal (1997)
  • Wolf Prize in Physics (2004)
  • Sakurai Prize (2010)
  • Nobel Prize in Physics (2013).

He was eventually recognised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his work on the theory of the particle which shares his name, the Higgs boson.

The landmark research that defined what was to become known as the Higgs boson was published in 1964.  For a long time, discovering the particle became one of the most sought-after goals in Science, and the team of scientists behind the $ 10 billion LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at CERN made proving its existence a key priority.

The existence of the so-called “God particle”, said to give all matter its substance, or mass, was proved almost 50 years later by a team from CERN, the European nuclear research facility, and its LHC in Geneva, Switzerland.  In July of last year, physicists at CERN confirmed the discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson.

Speaking for the first time after winning the award, at a media conference at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Peter Higgs said: “How do I feel?  Well, obviously I’m delighted and rather relieved in a sense that it’s all over.  It has been a long time coming.”  He explained that an old friend told him he had been nominated as far back as 1980.

Higgs added: “In terms of later events, it seemed to me for many years that the experimental verification might not come in my lifetime.  But since the start up of the LHC it has been pretty clear that they would get there, and despite some mishaps they did get there”.

Stressing the involvement of other theorists at CERN, he then added: “I think clearly they should, but it is going to be even more difficult for the Nobel Committee to allocate the credit when it comes to an organisation like CERN.”

Professor Higgs often felt uncomfortable with the media attention his theory brought to him.  However, reacting to the discovery at the time, he’s quoted to have told reporters: “It’s very nice to be right sometimes.”