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Peter Higgs: Fame? It’s a bit of a nuisance

Physicist Prof Peter Higgs pictured at home in Edinburghs New Town. Picture: Jane Barlow

Physicist Prof Peter Higgs pictured at home in Edinburghs New Town. Picture: Jane Barlow

  • by JOHN VON RADOWITZ
 

God particle scientist Professor Peter Higgs, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last year, has admitted that he finds his newfound fame “a bit of a nuisance”.

Speaking in the first episode of The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, the unassuming 84-year-old talks frankly about the work pressures that helped break up his marriage.

He also reveals how he struggled alone with his theories in the 1960s.

“Nobody else took what I was doing seriously, so nobody would want to work with me,” he tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili. “I was thought to be a bit eccentric, and maybe cranky.”

The Edinburgh University physicist was thrust into the limelight after the elusive fundamental particle that bears his name was found by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the huge atom-smashing machine in Switzerland built to probe the origins of the universe.

However, the transition to fame was not a comfortable one for him.

Asked how he feels about being stopped in the street and asked for his autograph, he says: “It’s a bit of a nuisance sometimes, frankly.”

The Higgs boson, nicknamed the “God particle”, provides mass to the most basic building blocks of matter.

Without it, the Standard Model theory that combines all the fundamental forces and particles of the universe would have fallen down.

Prof Higgs predicted the existence of the particle while working at Edinburgh University in 1964. But until the momentous discovery at the LHC near Geneva in 2012 it had proved impossible to track down.

In the Radio 4 interview, to be broadcast tomorrow at 9am, Prof Higgs says he initially failed to appreciate the significance of his theory.

“It seemed to me that this was an important result which I had got, but of course, it wasn’t clear at the time how it would be applied in particle physics, and those of us who did the work in ’64 were looking in the wrong place for the application,” he says. Eventually it was left to others, led by Steven Weinberg, to build on Prof Higgs’ work and put together the Standard Model.

Prof Higgs regrets missing an opportunity when he met American Nobel Laureate Professor Sheldon Glashow at the first Scottish Universities Summer School in Physics in 1960.

He says: “There were a group of students at the summer school who stayed up halfway through the night discussing things like weak and electromagnetic interactions, but I wasn’t part of that – I was on the committee, and I had work to do, so I didn’t stay up all night, so I didn’t learn about Glashow’s theory when I could have.”

In 1979 Prof Glashow was awarded the physics Nobel Prize for work on electroweak interactions, which made a major contribution to the Standard Model.

After the publication of the Standard Model, Prof Higgs admits that he was left behind as the field continued to develop.

He shot from obscurity to fame after the Higgs boson discovery and last year shared the Nobel Prize with Belgian Francois Englert.

Prof Higgs added that he believes a third scientist should have shared the Nobel Prize, theoretical physicist Professor Tom Kibble, from Imperial College London, who also worked on the Higgs boson.

 

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