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The shy man who changed our understanding of the Cosmos – Peter Higgs

Prof Peter Higgs will be best known for that mysterious-sounding substance nicknamed the ‘God particle’ – or just simply, and probably more widely, the Higgs boson.

He came up with the radical idea in the 1960s when he desired to explain why the basic building blocks of the Universe – atoms – have mass.His theory about what binds the Cosmos together, which other researchers also worked on at the same time, began a 50-year search for the Holy Grail of physics.The particle was eventually discovered in 2012 by scientists employing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Switzerland. A quintessential shy man, he told journalists: “It’s very nice to be right sometimes.” A year later,his work earned him the Nobel Prize for physics.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1929, Peter Higgs was showing signs of brilliance at school itself. While studying in a Bristol school, hewho won prizes for his science work – although it was in chemistry, not physics.He completed a PhD at King’s College, London but was outdone by his friend while competing for a job there. Instead he went to the University of Edinburgh where he kept asking the question: why do some particles have mass?His theory badly struggled to find a place in scientific journals – partially because few were able to understand it – but it was finally published in 1964.

He said his theory was formed over years, despite rumors about “Eureka” moments.Two other groups of researchers also published work about the same idea at that time.But the particle became famous as the Higgs boson – and for 50 years researchers looked for it employing some of the most outstanding technology on Earth.Prof Higgs had retired from the University of Edinburgh in 2006, but he still continued to watch developments at Cern in Geneva, where scientists were utilizing the LHC to look for the Higgs boson.

The particle accelerator, built at an astronomical cost of $10bn, was easily the most powerful yet. It was the machine that could prove – or disprove – Higgs’s theory.The boson had been given the nickname the ‘God particle’ by the media, after a book written by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman. Scientists object to the term arguing that the religion has no role to play in evidence-based physics.

Finally in 2012 physicists at Cern announced with great fanfare that they had discovered the Higgs boson.An advance notice was sent: “Peter should come to the CERN seminar or he will regret it.” He changed travel plans to visit Geneva for the remarkable announcement.”It’s been a long wait but it might have been even longer, I might not have been still around,” Higgs stated. “At the beginning I had no idea whether a discovery would be made in my lifetime.”

A year later the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tried in vain to call him. It’s become a trope that awardees miss the crucial phone call informing them they have been awarded a Nobel Prize. But Higgs did not even own a mobile phone. The announcement was made in his absence.A neighbor stopped him in the street to divulge the news that he’d won – together with Belgian physicist Francois Englert.

 

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