PROFESSOR Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh University scientist who gave his name to the Higgs boson particle, was congratulated by politicians and colleagues around the world after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.
The 84-year-old emeritus professor shares the celebrated prize with François Englert of Belgium for their work on the theory of the so-called “God particle” – said to give matter its substance, or mass.
In the 1960s they proposed a mechanism that predicted the particle. But it took until last year for the particle to be finally discovered by a team from the European nuclear research facility Cern in Geneva, Switzerland.
In a statement released through Edinburgh University, Prof Higgs said: “I am overwhelmed to receive this award and thank the Royal Swedish Academy.
“I would also like to congratulate all those who have contributed to the discovery of this new particle.
“I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
The announcement was made at a Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences ceremony in Stockholm. “This year’s prize is about something small that makes all the difference,” said Staffan Normark, permanent secretary of the academy.
The awards, set up by businessman Alfred Nobel, were first given out in 1901 to honour achievements in science, literature and peace.
The Higgs-Englert award recognises the “theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles”.
Cern director-general Rolf Heuer said he was “thrilled” that this year’s prize had gone to particle physics.
Edinburgh University principal Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea said the accolade was “worthy recognition” of the significance of the particle find, which will underpin the next generation of physics research.
“Professor Higgs’ work will continue to inspire scientists at Edinburgh and beyond,” he said.
Prof Higgs hit upon the concept of a “God particle’’ during a walk in the Cairngorms in 1964, when he started to consider why elementary particles, the basic building blocks of the universe, have mass.
He wrote two papers on his theory and was eventually published in the journal Physical Review Letters, sparking a 40-year hunt for the elusive boson. Other researchers, including Prof Englert, were working separately on the same idea, and published papers at about the same time.
The Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle”, is a subatomic particle long thought to be a fundamental building block of the universe.
Scientists say the particle explains the difference between objects with mass and objects that have only energy — objects with form and objects without.
Prof Higgs was given the Edinburgh Medal at a ceremony in March to recognise his contributions to the field of science and technology. Previous recipients have included three Nobel laureates. He was also made a Companion of Honour in the New Year Honours list and the Higgs Prize was set up by the Scottish Government to recognise school pupils who excel in physics.
Last night, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “This brilliant achievement is richly deserved recognition of his lifetime of dedicated research and his passion for science. It is also a credit to the world-leading British universities in which this research was carried out.
“It took nearly 50 years and thousands of great minds to discover the Higgs boson after Professor Higgs proposed it, and he and all those people should be extremely proud.”
The Princess Royal, in her role as chancellor of Edinburgh University, reflected on the Nobel announcement during a campus engagement.
She said: “As chancellor, I’m delighted because I can claim all sorts of benefits for the university [which is] hugely proud to have that connection with Professor Higgs.”
First Minister Alex Salmond paid his own tribute to Prof Higgs. He said: “This richly deserved honour not only highlights the quality of research in Scotland, but also how science inspires us to look for answers to fundamental questions about life and the universe.”
The man of the hour stayed out of the spotlight, telling The Scotsman that he would talk about his prize later in the week. Prof Higgs, who lives in Edinburgh, is described by friends and colleagues as “very unassuming” and shy. When his Higgs boson was confirmed last year, he responded: “It’s very nice to be right sometimes.”
But he has rock star status within the scientific community and he admitted recently that autograph hunters had begun to approach him in the street.
Prof Victoria Martin, one of his former students, who is now a reader in particle physics at Edinburgh University and Higgs boson researcher, the announcement generated great excitement in the department. She heard of her former mentor’s award via a live webcast, watching with about 70 colleagues from the university’s school of physics.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “It kept getting delayed and we were getting more nervous. Then there was a big cheer came up from all of us.”
Sir John Arbuthnott, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s national academy, said: “Peter Higgs is one of the great modern scientific minds. Peter maintains the Scottish tradition of inspired excellence in science and follows in the footsteps of outstanding RSE Fellows like James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin.
“Given the intense worldwide competition for the brightest minds and the, the ability of Scotland to continue to attract and retain the finest minds is now even more important.”
Last night Prof Stephen Hawking, another renowned physicist, added his praise: “The discovery last year at Cern is a triumph for theory.”
Dr Frances Saunders, president of the Institute of Physics, said: “The work undertaken to discover the Higgs has led to a very exciting and productive period in physics research [and] has inspired a generation.”
Mysteries of the universe only partly explained
The subatomic particle – called the “God particle” by some because it is seen as fundamental to the creation of the universe – has been the subject of an intense hunt at the world’s biggest atom smasher, near Geneva, Switzerland.
Last year, scientists at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, announced they had finally detected the long-sought particle.
What exactly is the Higgs boson?
Everything we see around us is made of atoms, inside of which are electrons, protons and neutrons. And those, in turn, are made of quarks and other subatomic particles. Scientists have wondered how these tiny building blocks of the universe acquire mass. Without mass, there would be no matter.
One theory, proposed separately by Peter Higgs and François Englert, is that a new particle must be creating a “sticky” energy field that acts as a drag on other particles. Experiments at Cern have since confirmed that this particle exists in a form that is similar to – but perhaps not exactly like – what was proposed.
Why does this matter?
The Higgs particle is part of many theoretical equations underpinning scientists’ understanding of how the world came into being. If it didn’t exist, those theories would have to be overhauled. The fact that it does exist gives more weight to the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which explains how much of the universe works. Scientists say there is still work to be done, especially because neutrinos, subatomic particles previously thought to be without mass, do now appear to have mass. Researchers are still trying to figure out how to account for “dark matter”, the four-fifths of matter in the universe that cannot be seen.
Dr Victoria Martin: It’s hard to think of a more gracious or deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize
Yesterday, François Englert of the Free University of Belgium, and Peter Ware Higgs, my old physics professor at the University of Edinburgh, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
The prize was awarded for their part in developing the Higgs mechanism – the theoretical underpinning that allows fundamental particles, the particles that make up you and me, to have a mass.
It was some time during my mathematical physics degree at the university that I first encountered Peter Higgs.
Wandering through the musty corridors, one of my fellow students elbowed me and whispered: “That’s Professor Higgs; he invented a particle.”
A few years later I was sitting in Higgs’s lectures. They were challenging. But then he was teaching some of the most advanced material we learned as undergraduates: Einstein’s theory of general relativity and symmetries.
But the lectures were also inspiring, as relativity and symmetries are key in the theory independently developed by Englert, his
now-deceased colleague Robert Brout and Higgs.
And inspired I was; because I am now back at the University of Edinburgh as a Higgs boson researcher, working with the Atlas experiment at Cern. Last year, on 4 July, the Atlas and CMS experiments announced the discovery of a new particle, a particle that looked very much like the Higgs boson.
By March this year, with more data analysed, it was clear that the new particle was one predicted by Englert, Brout and Higgs’s theory.
Which is good. Because without the Higgs mechanism and the Higgs boson predicted by the theory, there would be no way to explain why fundamental particles have a mass, and without that there’s no way to explain why these particles stick together to form atoms, molecules and hence all the structure of the universe.
These days, Peter Higgs is enjoying his retirement.
Excited students and colleagues tell me how they have spotted him on the bus, in the supermarket, having coffee and cake in a local cafe or attending events at the Edinburgh Festival.
He also does some public speaking, inspiring the next generation of scientists.
However, he is, to a fault, a modest man. Last year, at the Cern seminar announcing the Higgs boson discovery, he said he felt overwhelmed. Not for his effort; but for the efforts of the huge number of experimentalists running the experiments.
Personally, I think the choice of Nobel laureates was the correct one.
It’s hard to think of a more gracious or more deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics than Peter Higgs.
• Dr Victoria Martin is a reader in particle physics at the University of Edinburgh. She co-leads the University of Edinburgh team on the Atlas experiment, which co-discovered the Higgs boson in July 2012.