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Nobel Physics Prize Goes to "God Particle" Theorists

Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain have won the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of the so-called "God particle."

Staffan Normark of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners Tuesday in Stockholm, describing the discovery as "something very small that makes all the difference."

"And the Academy citation runs: '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.' "

The two scientists, Englert and Higgs, are known for discovering the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle nicknamed "the God particle" because it validates a very basic concept of particle physics, the so-called "Higgs field," which is believed to make possible the existence of atoms themselves.

Scientists, who have sought the particle for nearly 50 years, believe the Higgs boson existed only during the first millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, the explosion which created the universe some 13 billion years ago.

Joe Incandela, a spokesman for one of the experiment teams, has previously described the boson as being unlike any particle found so far.

"We are reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we have never done before. This is telling us something. It is key to the structure of the universe. We are on the frontier now. We are at the edge of a new exploration and this could open up -- maybe we see nothing extraordinary, and we understand that maybe this is the only part of the story that is left. Or maybe we open up a whole new realm of discovery."

The Higgs boson was detected in 2012 at the European Center for Nuclear Research's giant, underground particle-smasher near Geneva, Switzerland, also known as the CERN laboratory. The discovery was later confirmed in March of this year after a series of international ATLAS and CMS experiments performed at that lab.

Many American scientists contributed to both experiments.

The Brookhaven National Laboratory served as the U.S. hub for the ATLAS experiment, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory served as the U.S. hub for the CMS experiment.

Howard Gordon, deputy chair of the Brookhaven physics department, spoke to VOA about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

"We found evidence that it was true. There was a lot of speculation about this theory. There were people that had different ideas of how these particles would get their mass, so there was quite a bit of skepticism about this theory, which was postulated 50 years ago. But, yes, our two experiments, ATLAS and CMS, proved that the theory was correct."

Gordon called the discovery a "great triumph of intellectual accomplishment."

"The fact that somebody had this idea, and it's been proven out. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any practical application that we know of today. But I always like to look back 100 years or more, when questions of what was an electron good for, what is Einstein's theory of relativity good for. In the case of Einstein's theory of relativity, a modern GPS uses relativistic corrections to get its accuracy, so without the theory of relativity that Einstein came up with 100 years ago, we wouldn't have the application for the GPS today. So this is something that doesn't have an immediate application. We don't know really how it's going to be used. But it's a tremendous triumph of science to understand now what gives these elementary particles their mass."

The "God particle" is the last piece of mystery in the Standard Model of physics, a theory that explains how everything in the cosmos is made from 12 basic building blocks.

The two scientists will share a $1.25 million prize that will be handed out in December.

Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

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