Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Introduction to Nobel Prizes 2013 – II : Physics

The picture of the atom in your mind might have a cute little nucleus at the centre, with obedient electrons revolving around it, like a miniature solar system. Well, science no longer shares this endearing picture. If you can look inside the atom, it would be like a big sweet shop, with hundreds of different types of particles appearing and disappearing, just as the sweets do during these pre-Deepawali days.
But till fifty years ago, scientists were scratching their heads about a puzzle. None of these exotic particles appeared to have any property that can explain why atoms weigh anything at all. Peter Higgs was one of the scientists in 1964 to propose the existence of a particle, which was later named Higgs Boson in his honour, that lends mass to atom.
It rarely happens in science that a theory or scientist becomes a household name. Even if we think hard, Einstein with his flowing hair and his special theory of relativity is the only example that comes to mind. So many important breakthroughs are made every year, but people at large remain unaware of them.
So would have been the case with Peter Higgs and his invention too. Higgs Boson would have remained buried in science papers and journals, but a popular science book in 1993 decided to call it the ‘God Particle’. The name became immensely popular. Newspapers and magazines used the word with little discretion. It was one of the best marketing campaigns for science in recent times.
The scientific community was in earnest quest to find the particle, however. In 2008, the European organization CERN built a multi-billion dollar machine called Large Hadron Collider. One of the jobs of the giant machine was to confirm the existence of Higgs Boson. A big team of scientists from many nations worked on the LHC. They succeeded in finding the illusive particle last year.
Prompted by this, the Nobel prize committee awarded this year’s Nobel for Physics to two of the scientists who originally proposed the particle. The prize was given for ‘contribution to understanding the origin of mass of sub-atomic particles’.
Peter Higgs, now 84, is a professor in the University of Edinburg in Scotland, and is planning to retire next year. He was out hiking in the hills when the announcement came. He learned the big news from his neighbors.
Francois Englert from Belgium shared the prize. He independently proposed the particle in 1964, when he was only 30. He is a professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, or the Free University of Brussels.
We Indians should feel proud about the name Boson. It celebrates the Indian scientist Satyendra Nath Bose, who lived and did his research in Calcutta ninety years ago. Einstein himself read and translated his research paper in German. His joint research with Einstein led to a better understanding of the atom. All the particles in the atom fall in two major kinds. One of them – the boson- is named in his honor (The other one is called Fermion).
As many as six scientists submitted papers with proposals similar to Higgs in 1964. The team of scientists at CERN contributed to the actual discovery of the particle. But the Nobel went to Higgs and Englert. Life, and especially Nobel Prizes are not always fair, are they?

No comments:

Post a Comment