Belgian scientist François Englert wins historic Nobel Prize

  • Ever since 1977 and Ilya Prigogine, Belgium has been bereft of scientific awards.
  • The scalar or Higgs boson is the cornerstone of an overall vision of the world, contributing to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.

It’s 1.45. Surrounded by his family, François Englert is in front of the TV screen. The Nobel committee announcement countdown has ended. The phone hasn’t yet rung. “I was convinced that I didn’t get it because the laureate is normally notified several minutes prior to the announcement. My grandchildren then reminded me that in their eyes, I’m the award winner for banana toast. So we made banana toast.”

And for the first time in recent Nobel Prize history, the jury took exactly one extra hour to announce that professor François Englert and professor Peter Higgs would share the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the scalar boson, now known as the Higgs Boson. This elementary particle explains the fact that other elementary particles have mass. This is a central piece of the puzzle for the world as we know it. The boson was discovered in 1964 but only observed for the first time with near certainty in 2012 using the CERN hadron collider in Geneva.

In the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) rectorate, everything was in place to celebrate the new laureate (the overwhelming favorite), but there was a lingering feeling that the Nobel jury could still select a different piece of research. Tension mounted. Every 15 minutes the deadline was moved back again. Didier Viviers, the rector, had to leave the room, but erupted back into it, bursting with joy when the announcement was finally made at 12.45.

Belgium has therefore earned the 11th Nobel Prize in its history, while the ULB can now boast four. There has been a Nobel Prize drought since llya Prigogine’s chemistry award in 1977. After the passing of Christian de Duve last year, there were no more living Belgian Nobel Prize winners.

The press conference is delayed. The federal research minister, Courard, as well as his Walloon and Brussels counterparts, Nollet and Fremault, are already there along with Rudi Vervoort, the Brussels minister president. Elio Di Rupo then appears, stating: “There is nothing more wonderful for a scientist than a Nobel Prize. Many undoubtedly dream of it, and few get it. It’s meant as a proof of outstanding intelligence, a signal to the Belgian youth to not be afraid of science. It goes without saying that scientists are a country’s economic asset, but they also pursue knowledge. They tell us where the world came from and where it’s going. On top of that, like all the truly great, François Englert is humble.”

An emotional Englert, the hero of the day, finally appears in front of two hundred reporters and cameras. The applause goes on and on. “In 1964, we were passionate about the path we had taken, my friend Robert Brout and me. We never imagined that one day we would win the Nobel Prize.” A reporter dares to ask the question: “Explain the boson in two minutes.” Englert kindly declines: “It takes years of study. I don’t want to mislead anyone. I want to explain the world, not make caricatures of it.”

It’s a little strange to receive a prize almost fifty years after having done the research. Today, however, doesn’t a researcher have to publish more than before to justify his existence? And to justify the investments in the short term? “Researcher freedom is vital and fundamental research is the foundation of applied research. It calls on our creativity. If it’s constrained through a perspective of short-term demands, it will become an obsolete copy. It’ll stutter, dry up and fail. I’m grateful to the ULB for having welcomed me and allowed me to work outside the expected standards.”

His wife Mira, who is sitting in the audience, reacts with emotion in her voice: “The scientific community is wonderful. If the rest of the world was like that, there would not be any wars in the world.” François Englert is escorted to the Campus de la Plaine, where the scientists in his department applaud him at length. They know that the Nobel Prize’s reputation will turn the spotlight on research that is sometimes obscure and complicated. They are proud that, once again, “science triumphs over darkness”, to quote the university motto.

FRÉDÉRIC SOUMOIS

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