Britain's Peter Higgs and Francois Englert of Belgium won the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for predicting the existence of the Higgs boson particle that explains how elementary matter attained the mass to form stars and planets.

Half a century after their original work, the new building block of nature was finally detected in 2012 at the CERN research centre's giant, underground particle-smasher near Geneva. The discovery was hailed as one of the most important in physics.

"I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy," Higgs said in a statement released by the University of Edinburgh. "I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research."

The two scientists had been favourites to share the eight million Swedish kronor ($1.25 million US) prize after their theoretical work was vindicated by the CERN experiments.

Nobel Physics

Belgian physicist Francois Englert, left, and British physicist Peter Higgs have been awarded the Nobel physics prize. (Martial Trezzini/The Associated Press)

To find the elusive particle, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had to pore over data from the wreckage of trillions of sub-atomic proton collisions.

"I'm thrilled that this year's Nobel Prize has gone to particle physics," said CERN director general Rolf Heuer. He said the discovery of the particle at CERN last year "marks the culmination of decades of intellectual effort by many people around the world."

'From flowers and people to stars and planets'

"The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

"According to the Standard Model, everything, from flowers and people to stars and planets, consists of just a few building blocks: matter particles."

The Higgs boson is the last piece of the Standard Model of physics that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe. Some commentators — though not scientists — have called it the "God particle," for its role in turning the Big Bang into an ordered cosmos.

The will of Swedish dynamite millionaire Alfred Nobel limits the award to a maximum of three people. Yet six scientists published relevant papers in 1964 and thousands more have worked to detect the Higgs at the LHC.​

Englert, 80, and his colleague Robert Brout — who died in 2011— were first to publish, but 84-year-old Higgs followed just a couple of weeks later and was the first person to explicitly predict the existence of a new particle.

Similar proposals from American researchers Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik and Britain's Tom Kibble appeared shortly afterward.

Their combined work shows how elementary particles inside atoms gain mass by interacting with an invisible field pervading all of space — and the more they interact, the heavier they become. The particle associated with the field is the Higgs boson.

The Large Hadron Collider cost $10 billion to build and runs in a 27-kilometre tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border.

Only about one collision per trillion will produce one of the Higgs bosons in the collider, and it took CERN some time after the discovery of a new "Higgs-like" boson to decide that the particle was, in fact, very much like the Higgs boson expected in the original formulation, rather than a kind of variant.

The announcement, which was widely expected, was delayed by one hour, which is highly unusual. The academy gave no immediate reason, other than saying on Twitter that it was "still in session" at the original announcement time.

The academy decides the winners in a majority vote on the day of the announcement.

Staffan Normark, the permanent secretary of the academy, said the academy had tried to reach Higgs on Tuesday but "all the numbers we tried he did not answer." He wouldn't say if that's why the announcement was delayed.

Nobel physics facts

  • This year's win: 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.
  • Famous past winners: Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen won the first Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery of X-Rays; GuglielmoMarconi in 1909 for his contribution to radio communications; Max Planck in 1918 for quantum theory; Albert Einstein for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect in 1921 and Enrico Fermi in 1938 for his work on induced radioactivity.
  • Oldest laureate in physics: Raymond Davis Jr., who was 88 years old when he was awarded the prize in 2002.
  • Two women winners: Marie Curie in 1903 (also awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. - Reuters

With files from The Associated Press