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Gerald Guralnik, a ‘God particle’ pioneer, dies at 77

Gerald Guralnik (left) visited the CERN research center in Geneva with Brown University colleague Ulrich Heintz. The center is the site of the Large Hadron Collider.

courtesy of ULRICH HEINTZ

Gerald Guralnik (left) visited the CERN research center in Geneva with Brown University colleague Ulrich Heintz. The center is the site of the Large Hadron Collider.

NEW YORK — Gerald Guralnik, one of six pioneering physicists who in the 1960s came up with a theory that nearly 50 years later would lead to the discovery of a subatomic particle that helped explain a perennial mystery about the universe — why it contains life and diversity — died April 26 in Providence. He was 77.

His son, Zachary, said the cause was a heart attack.

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The discovery of the particle — it is known as the Higgs boson, though some call it “the God particle” — in 2012 confirmed a longstanding belief about why some elements have matter and some do not, and it earned a Nobel Prize for some of the physicists who first asserted that it existed.

Dr. Guralnik was not awarded the Nobel, but his crucial role in one of the most ambitious pursuits of modern physics is not in dispute.

On July 4, 2012, he and other surviving founders of the theory received a raucous ovation when they entered an auditorium at CERN, a multinational research center in Geneva. They had been invited to hear the announcement that a younger generation of scientists had used an immense multibillion-dollar machine called the Large Hadron Collider to confirm a theory many of the older men had drafted when they were starting their careers.

Dr. Guralnik, reveling in a spectacle rare for physics, said the applause was “like a football game.”

In 1964, he and the five other physicists, working in three independent groups, published papers describing a field of energy that is everywhere all the time but nowhere to be seen. This force, they theorized, provides mass to the elemental ingredients that make up everything else: people, places, things, the living, the inanimate, the aromatic.

Decades later — after refinements by others, after major government investments around the world, and after thousands of scientists sifted through the results of trillions of collisions of protons inside the Large Hadron Collider — they were told how right they were.

“The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry,” Dennis Overbye wrote of the CERN announcement in a front-page article in The New York Times in 2012 under the headline “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe.”

“According to the Standard Model,” he continued, “the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

“Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.”

The other physicists were Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, who worked independently and for whom the particle was named; François Englert and Robert Brout, both of Université Libre de Bruxelles; Tom Kibble of Imperial College London; and Carl Hagen of the University of Rochester.

Dr. Guralnik, who later became a professor at Brown University, had been working with Kibble and Hagen at Imperial College at the time.

Last fall, Higgs and Englert received the Nobel for their work. Brout might have as well, but he died in 2011, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously. Dr. Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble received other awards for their work on the Higgs.

The three could have been excluded from the Nobel for any number of reasons, Hagen said in an interview. He noted that the Nobel is not awarded to more than three people and that his group’s paper had been submitted slightly later than the others and included a reference to one of the others.

“That’s a courtesy thing,” Hagen said. “It doesn’t mean we built on them. It just means we recognize that those papers are out there.”

He added, “I’ve got to immodestly say that ours was the best.”

Hagen and Dr. Guralnik recently published a letter that took issue with the Nobel Committee’s reasoning in awarding the prize to Higgs and Englert.

“We’re not saying that they did something wrong,” Hagen said, referring to Higgs and Englert. “What we’re saying is the people that are giving the prize for it don’t really understand what they’re giving the prize for.”

Gerald Stanford Guralnik was born Sept. 17, 1936, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was the older of two children. His parents, David and Bella, ran an accounting business. They saw a sharp intellect in young Gerald and urged him to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He met Hagen there when both were sophomores, in fall 1955.

He received his doctorate from Harvard in 1964, writing his thesis on the idea of symmetry-breaking in the Standard Model — a suite of equations that has ruled particle physics for the past half-century. That same year, he received a National Science Foundation fellowship to study at Imperial College.

In addition to his son, he leaves his wife, the former Susan Ellovich, whom he married in 1963; his sister, Judith Ingis; and two grandchildren.

Some prominent physicists discouraged Dr. Guralnik from pursuing the work he started in symmetry-breaking in the early 1960s. Werner Heisenberg, who was awarded the Nobel in 1932, suggested to him that “these ideas were junk,” Dr. Guralnik wrote in The Huffington Post in 2012. He said that Robert E. Marshak, at the University of Rochester, “told me that if I wished to survive in physics that I must stop thinking about this sort of problem and move on.”

He mostly did. After he joined the Brown faculty in the late 1960s, his work involved quantum field theory and computer applications. All the while, the search for the particle he predicted continued.

“We did not see the big picture 50 years earlier,” Hagen said. “We just thought it was an interesting problem, and we solved it and we started doing other things.”

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