Celebrate the Nobel Prize at the Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum, celebrates the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics ahead of the opening of our Collider exhibition next month.      

Congratulations to Briton Peter Higgs and Belgian François Englert, winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics “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 experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

A few minutes ago, after an unusual delay, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the physics prize in Stockholm, ending this chapter of the quest for new elementary particles, the greatest intellectual adventure to date.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, comments: “That it has taken decades to validate the existence of the Higgs Boson illustrates the remarkable vision of the theoretical work that Higgs, Francois Englert and others did with pen and paper half a century ago, one that launched an effort by  thousands of scientists and inspired a staggering feat of engineering in the guise of the Large Hadron Collider.

What is the Higgs? Here’s all you need to know, in just 90 seconds, from Harry Cliff, a Cambridge University physicist working on the LHCb experiment and the first Science Museum Fellow of Modern Science

Although the identity of the winners has been a closely-guarded secret, many have speculated that those who played a central role in discovery of the long-sought Higgs, notably the emeritus Edinburgh professor himself, were leading contenders for a place in history.

The Science Museum has been so confident that the Large Hadron Collider would change our view of nature that we have invested more than £1 million, and worked closely with the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, to celebrate this epic undertaking with its new exhibition, Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, which opens to the public on 13 November. 

Here Higgs explains how the Large Hadron Collider works during a visit to what is now Cotham School, Bristol, where he was once a pupil.

In July 2012, two separate research teams at CERN’s £5 billion Large Hadron Collider reported evidence of a new particle thought to be the Higgs boson, technically a ripple in an invisible energy field that gives most particles their mass.

This discovery represented the final piece of the Standard Model, a framework of theory developed in the late 20th century that describes the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces, with the exception of gravity.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a leading theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who will attend the launch of Collider, bet a year’s salary the Higgs will be found at the LHC.

Another speaker at the Collider launch, the world’s most famous scientist, Prof Stephen Hawking, lost a $100 bet he made against the discovery (though he is adamant that Higgs deserves the Nobel Prize).

Higgs, who refuses to gamble, told me just before the LHC powered up that he would have been puzzled and surprised if the LHC had failed in its particle quest. “If I’m wrong, I’ll be rather sad. If it is not found, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”

When Higgs was in the CERN auditorium last year to hear scientists tell the world about the discovery, he was caught reaching for a handkerchief and dabbing his eyes.  On the flight home, he celebrated this extraordinary achievement with a can of London Pride beer.

The Science Museum hoped to have the can, now deemed a piece of history Alas, Higgs had dumped it in the rubbish before we could collect it. However, the museum does possess the champagne bottle that Higgs emptied with his friends the night before the big announcement.

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The champagne bottle Peter Higgs drank from, the night before the Higgs boson discovery was announced to the world. Credit: Science Museum

The modest 84-year-old  is now synonymous with the quest: the proposed particle was named the Higgs boson in 1972.

But there have been demands that the particle be renamed to acknowledge the work of others. Deciding who should share this Nobel has been further complicated because a maximum of three people only can be honoured (prompting many to question the criteria used by the Nobel committee).

The LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is the cumulative endeavour of around ten thousand men and women from across the globe. In recognition of this the Collider exhibition will tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Higgs discovery from the viewpoint of a young PhD student given the awesome task of announcing the discovery to her colleagues (though fictional, the character is based on Mingming Yang of MIT who is attending the launch).

However, although one suggestion is to allow the two research teams who discovered the Higgs boson to share the accolade, the Nobel committee traditionally awards science prizes to individuals and not organizations (unlike the Nobel Peace Prize).

Instead, the Nobel committee honoured the theoreticians who first anticipated the existence of the Higgs.

Six scientists published the relevant papers in 1964 though, as Belgium’s Robert Brout died in 2011, there were five contenders (the Nobel Prize cannot be given posthumously).

In August 1964, François Englert from the Free University of Brussels with Brout, published their theory of particle masses. A month later, while working at Edinburgh University, Higgs published a separate paper on the topic, followed by another in October that was – crucially – the first to explicitly state the Standard Model required the existence of a new particle. In November 1964, American physicists Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and British physicist Tom Kibble added to the discussion by publishing their own research on the topic.

Last week, Prof Brian Cox of Manchester University, who works at CERN, said it would be ‘odd and perverse’ not to give the Nobel to Peter Higgs, and also singled out Lyn ‘the atom’ Evans, the Welshman in charge of building the collider, as a candidate.

And the two likeliest winners were named as Peter Higgs – after whom the particle was named – and François Englert, according to a citation analysis by Thomson Reuters.

Today’s announcement marks the formal recognition of a profound advance in human understanding, the discovery of one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Discover more about the Higgs boson and the world’s largest science experiment in our new exhibition, Collider, opening 13th November 2013.

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