Clash of the atom-smashing academics
HE HAS won admiration throughout the world for his brilliant brain, best-selling books and courageous fight against debilitating illness.
Yet Professor Stephen Hawking is clearly not lionised by all his peers. One highly respected contemporary has launched an attack on the esteemed professor, accusing him of trading on his celebrity status.
Professor Peter Higgs, a retired Edinburgh University academic who is one of the most revered names in the field of particle physics, also claimed that Prof Hawking’s disability hampered proper scientific scrutiny of his theories.
Prof Hawking, the author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time, has hit back, scolding Prof Higgs for making unnecessarily personal remarks.
The clash between the two leading thinkers was not provoked by any mundane dispute. Instead, the source of their apparent hostility is a fundamental disagreement over the holy grail of particle physics – the so-called “God’s particle”.
Prof Hawking doubts whether the sub-atomic particle, which is believed to hold the key to the universe, will ever be discovered.
Prof Higgs predicted in 1964 that it would be identified.
Prof Hawking has already won a $100 bet with Professor Gordy Kane, of the University of Michigan, that the Higgs-Boson particle would not be detected in a major atom-smashing experiment in Geneva.
A second bet still stands between them over whether the particle, which is believed to give mass its weight, will be discovered in a similar experiment taking place in a United States government laboratory near Chicago.
However, Prof Higgs, whose theory is backed by most particle physicists, has told The Scotsman that he believes Prof Hawking’s celebrity status has given him undeserved instant credibility.
He also claimed that the scientist’s motor neurone disease, which forces him to communicate through a computerised voice synthesiser, has limited exhaustive scrutiny of his views.
Prof Higgs said: “It is very difficult to engage him [Hawking] in discussion, and so he has got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not. His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have.” Prof Hawking, who holds the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge University, expressed dismay at Prof Higgs’s comments.
He said: “I am surprised by the depth of feeling in Higgs’s remarks. I would hope one could discuss scientific issues without personal remarks.”
Prof Hawking also said his views on the Higgs-Boson had been proved right. He said he had won the first bet, after the particle was not detected by the Large Electron Positron (LEP) particle accelerator at the CERN nuclear laboratory in Geneva.
He said: “Higgs has got it wrong. I did not bet that the Higgs-Boson doesn’t exist, just that it would not be discovered at LEP and I have already won the bet.”
Supporters of Prof Higgs, like Prof Kane, are confident that the Higgs-Boson particle exists. They point to strong indirect evidence and hints of direct evidence of its presence.
They believe that the issue will be resolved finally by the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab, near Chicago, or by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project at CERN, which is seven times as powerful and is due to start in 2007.
Some particle physicists believe the Higgs-Boson is the missing piece in the jigsaw explaining the nature of matter and the forces that hold it together. Particles are thought to acquire mass by interacting with the Higgs-Boson.
Prof Kane said: “The Higgs particle is one of the elementary building blocks of nature, like electrons and photons. It is one of the most important ones because of its role in determining what the real world looks like.”
However, Prof Higgs revealed his embarrassment at the Higgs-Boson being described as “God’s particle”.
He said: “I am not a believer [in God], and this might be offensive to believers. It is not an expression used by anyone in particle physics.”
Prof Kane said that before the LEP accelerator at CERN was wound up two years ago, the machine gave tantalising hints of the existence of the Higgs-Boson when it was pushed to its limits.
He said: “Unfortunately, LEP did not quite have the energy and intensity to establish this conclusively or rule it out.”
By contrast, Prof Hawking has argued that, because of the structure of the universe at its tiniest level, the Higgs-Boson may be invisible, or undetectable. None of the scientists with opposing views has upped the original $100 bet, but they remain confident of being proved right.
Professor James Stirling, who chairs the science committee of the government’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said: “The energy levels of the LHC will be such that it will find the Higgs-Boson.”
Prof Stirling added that he would be willing to “chip in the family silver” in support of the theory.
Time for a brief history
Title: Lucasian professor of mathematics, Cambridge University - once held by Sir Isaac Newton.
Educated: St Albans School; University College, Oxford.
Claim to fame: Author of ten-million selling A Brief History of Time, about the beginning and end of the universe.
Publications: various other books, including Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Universe in a Nutshell.
Awards include: CBE 1982, Companion of Honour 1989, Hughes Medal (Royal Society) 1976, Paul Dirac Medal 1987.
Communications: Computerised-voice synthesiser, because motor neurone disease has left him unable to speak.
Hawking on Higgs: "I am surprised by the depth of feeling in his remarks. I would hope one could discuss scientific issues without personal remarks."
Old-tech view of scientific study
Title: Professor (Emeritus) of theoretical physics, Edinburgh University.
Educated: Cotham Grammar School, Bristol (Paul Dirac, who discovered anti-matter, also attended the school); King’s College, London.
Claim to fame: Predicted existence of Higgs-Boson particle .
Publications: Various academic papers, including classical and quantum field theories.
Awards include: Hughes Medal (Royal Society) 1981, Paul Dirac Medal 1997.
Communications: By letter. Does not have a television or access to e-mail, but admits owning a temperamental phone answering machine.
Higgs on Hawking: "He has got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not. His celebrity status gives him instant credibility that others do not have."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South