It comes after experiments at the Switzerland-based particle physics facility Cern last year confirmed the existence of the “Higgs boson”, a particle predicted by the theory.
In 1964, Professor Higgs and Professor Englert, the latter together with the now deceased Robert Brout, independently came up with the mechanism that describes how fundamental particles acquire mass.
In making its announcement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called the theory “a central part” of the Standard Model of physics, which has been enormously successful in describing the basic building blocks of matter.
The announcement came after an hour’s delay, which led many to speculate whether the academy’s Nobel Commitee were struggling to contact Professor Higgs, who, reports suggested, had gone on holiday without a telephone.
In a statement the 84-year-old said he was “overwhelmed” to receive the award.
“I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle and to thank my family, friends and colleagues for their support. I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research,” he added.
Professor Higgs was widely tipped to receive the prize this year, after Cern’s confirmation of the particle’s existence came too late for him or Professor Englert to be considered for the 2012 prize.
Each year the award can only go to a maximum of three people and some had questioned whether the committee might break the rule to recognise Cern’s role in discovering the particle. However neither the facility nor individuals from it were recognised.
Cern director general Rolf Heuer said he was thrilled that this year’s Nobel Prize has gone to particle physics. “The discovery of the Higgs boson at Cern last year, which validates the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world,” he said.
Professor Higgs is known for having called the particle the “scalar boson” for many years, however his name is now popularly associated with the particle over that of his fellow theorists.
Tom Kibble, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College London and one of three academics who further developed the theory in the 1960s, said he was glad to see the Swedish Academy recognise its importance and congratulated the winners.
“My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published in Physical Review Letters in 1964 (though we naturally regard our treatment as the most thorough and complete),” he said.
Commenting on the prize, Paul Newman, head of the particle physics group at the University of Birmingham, called the Higgs mechanism a “very strange idea indeed”.
“It requires the entire universe, even deepest inter-galactic space, to be filled with a new field of a fundamentally different kind from anything previously known.
“The audacity of proposing such a bizarre and all-pervading mechanism based on what was known half a century ago is simply stunning. The confirmation of the idea through [Cern’s] discovery of a Higgs boson is one of the most incredible scientific stories of recent times.”