Congratulations to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for winning this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. However annoying the self-imposed rules are that prevent the prize from more accurately reflecting the actual contributions, there’s no question that the work being honored this time around is truly worthy.
To me, the proposal of the Higgs mechanism is one of the absolutely most impressive examples we have of the precision and restrictiveness of Nature’s workings at a deep level — something that sometimes gets lost in the hand-waving analogies we are necessarily reduced to when trying to explain hard ideas to a wide audience. There they were, back in 1964 — Englert and Higgs, as well as Anderson, Brout, Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble — confronted with a relatively abstract-sounding problem: how can you make a model for the nuclear forces that is based on local symmetry, like electromagnetism and gravity, but nevertheless only stretches over short ranges, like we actually observe? (None of these folks were thinking about “giving particles mass”; that only came in 1967, with Weinberg and Salam.)
It sounds like a pretty esoteric, open-ended question. And they just sat down and thought about it, with only very crude guidance from actual data. And they went out on a limb (one that had been constructed by other physicists, like Yochiro Nambu and Jeffrey Goldstone) and put forward a dramatic idea: empty space is filled with an invisible field that acts like fog, attenuating the lines of force and keeping the interaction short-range. How would you ever know that such an idea were true? Only because you could imagine poking that field a bit, to set it vibrating, and observe the vibrations as a new kind of particle.
And forty-eight years later, billions of dollars and thousands of dedicated people, that particle finally showed up, as a little bump amidst trillions of collision events. Amazing.
Here are my Top Ten Higgs Boson Facts. And here I am yakking about it on Sixty Symbols:
Professors Englert and Higgs have every reason to be very proud, but this prize is really a testament to human intellectual curiosity and perseverance. And well deserved, at that.