They proposed the existence of an invisible field that sprawls through space like a net. The building blocks of matter, they suggested, acquired mass when this field trapped them. Much later, as the universe cooled, they formed atoms that eventually became stars and planets.
To detect the field, the scientists suggested looking for the Higgs boson, because all fields are associated with a particle. Decades would pass before scientists were able to confirm the existence of this particle.
Only about one collision per trillion will produce a Higgs boson in the giant atom collider, and it took CERN several months after the discovery of a new “Higgs-like” boson to conclude that the particle was, in fact, very much like the one expected in the original formulation.
The phrase “God particle” was coined by Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman, but it’s disliked by most physicists because it connotes the supernatural. Lederman said later that the phrase — mostly used by laymen — was really meant to convey that he felt it was the “goddamn particle,” because it proved so hard to find.
Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society, an organization of physicists, said the Higgs particle captured the public’s imagination.
“If you’re a physicist, you can’t get in a taxi anywhere in the world without having the driver ask you about the Higgs particle,” said Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago.
Turner said the Higgs is the first in a class of particles that scientists think played a role in shaping the universe. That means it points the way to tackling mysteries such as the nature of dark energy and dark matter, he said.
The physics prize was the second of this year’s Nobels to be announced. On Monday, the Nobel in medicine was given to U.S. scientists James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof for discoveries about how key substances are moved around within cells.