Meet the master of the universe
For years it's been a particle of faith, but this giant machine may soon confirm one city scientist's theory of creation.
OVER the centuries, Edinburgh has produced some of history's most remarkable scientists, inventors and mathematicians.
Among those who have shaped the world in which we live are Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, James Clerk Maxwell, without whom we might have no mobile phones or microwaves, and John Napier, who created logarithms.
But while these men's names are known far beyond the academic world, there is a man residing in Edinburgh today with perhaps an even bigger claim to fame.
Living quietly in his New Town flat, this grey-haired gentleman with an unassuming smile is no limelight-seeker and few of his neighbours know the significance of his work. But Peter Higgs (pictured below) is in fact the man credited with figuring out how the universe works.
A very private man who prefers the company of his former Edinburgh University colleagues to public acclaim, he is about to be thrust into the limelight never- theless for a theory he came up with 44 years ago.
That insight has shaped our understanding of the way the fundamental particles that make up the universe behave.
His theory has been accepted by the scientific community for decades, although there has never been concrete proof of it.
That all may be about to change spectacularly, thanks to one of the largest, most expensive science experiments in history.
Higgs predicted the existence of an invisible force field which some objects pass through more easily than others, making some heavier than others. Central to his theory is the existence of a particle he named – and still calls – the scalar boson. Others call it the Higgs boson or "the God particle", and the professor – an atheist – is said to like neither name.
The only problem is that no one has ever been able to identify the boson despite its existence being accepted by scientists worldwide.
However, it is hoped the culmination of a 3 billion experiment at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva – in a 17-mile long underground tunnel – will soon find the elusive boson.
There, inside the cavernous Large Hadron Collider (LHC), scientists plan later this month, or early next, to smash particles together at almost the speed of light, in an effort to recreate the Big Bang which is believed to have created the universe.
Among the debris of this collision they hope to discover the proof of Prof Higgs' theory.
If he is proved right – an event Prof Higgs has said he will celebrate modestly by opening "a bottle of something" – there is little doubt that the 79-year-old physician will be awarded a Nobel Prize.
There is growing anticipation around the world of what will happen when the massive LHC particle accelarator is switched on, not least at Edinburgh University's physics labs and at Prof Higgs' New Town home.
Professor Richard Kenway, who worked with Higgs for a number of years at Edinburgh University, said: "There's been a serious build-up of excitement over the past 12 months as Cern edges towards switching on the (LHC] machine.
"It's not going to be a fast pro-cess as there's quite a lot of steps to go through first and we will be watching it with baited breath.
"It completes the theory that we have had now since the early-70s, so in some sense it's a huge vindication of the theories that physicists have been building up to explain."
Prof Kenway accompanied Higgs on a tour of Cern earlier this year, where some starstruck staff even asked for his autograph. One physicist there, John Ellis, even compared him with Einstein.
Although not immune from the growing excitement surrounding the experiment, Prof Kenway says his former colleague is "taking it all in his stride".
"The world of physics would say he, and colleagues who worked with him, probably should have been recognised by a Nobel Prize, but the rules say you don't get the prize unless there's an experimental discovery," he said.
"I think Peter is enjoying himself now, although he's taking it all in his stride. He is quite modest and recognises the contributions that others made to the theory and the effort being made to confirm it. He views it as the final piece in the jigsaw for the theory."
Prof Higgs – who was raised in Bristol and moved to Edinburgh in his early thirties, making the Capital his home ever since – is said to be "a little worried" about the spotlight which will inevitably fall on him should the experiment succeed.
He is, though, excited at the prospect of what else the experiment might throw up.
Prof Kenway says there are "a bunch of unanswered questions" which it may go some way to answering".
He added: "Everybody is hoping that something else will be found alongside it, something completely new, something that changes the way in which we think about the universe.
"For instance, we don't really understand where gravity fits into it. The Higgs boson explains everything else, but not quantum gravity, so we are thinking that perhaps we will observe some-thing, and that's the most exciting prospect."
PROFESSOR'S PLACE IN HISTORY
PROFESSOR Peter Higgs' place in history rests on a theory he came up with almost half a century ago.
His breakthrough came after returning to his New Town flat following an aborted weekend camping trip to the Highlands with his wife Jo. The question he had been pondering was one of the most basic problems of theoretical physics: what makes an object, like a brick, for instance, heavy when its atoms are weightless?
Higgs came up with an elegant theory suggesting the existence of a force field which all particles must pass through. Some are slowed down more than others by the field, making objects heavier and lighter. He also proposed that a particle exists, which he called a scalar boson – re-named the Higgs boson in the early 1970s – which clings to other particles as they pass through the field.
Higgs' work is now considered a fundamental part of the standard model which scientists use to explain how the universe works.
The problem is, the Higgs boson has never actually been identified, although the massive Cern experiment on the French-Swiss border this summer may change all that.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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