‘They’ll find the God particle by summer.’ And Peter Higgs should know

Renowned physicist Professor Peter Higgs gives a rare interview to Jenny Fyall as he receives the Edinburgh Award

Renowned physicist Professor Peter Higgs gives a rare interview to Jenny Fyall as he receives the Edinburgh Award

THE fabled Higgs boson that will help explain the origins of the universe will be found this summer, the scientist who gave his name to the particle has predicted.

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Professor Peter Higgs told The Scotsman he thought scientists at Cern working with the Large Hadron Collider would find evidence that the elusive particle exists within a matter of months.

The acclaimed 82-year-old theoretical physicist came up with the now famous theory in 1964 which provides an explanation for the origins of mass as a property of matter.

However, almost half a century later, the Higgs boson that is a fundamental part of the theory has still not been found.

“It’s found well enough to satisfy quite a few people but not well enough to satisfy the standards of Cern,” the professor said.

“The kind of certainty they want is where it becomes a few million to one against it being any other stray effect which might simulate it.

“It should be settled during the summer.”

He added: “To me it looks extremely promising at the moment but the experimentalists want it more cut and dried than it is at the moment.”

Prof Higgs was speaking ahead of a ceremony last night to present him with the prestigious Edinburgh Award for his contribution to the city.

When the Higgs boson, which has become known as the God Particle, is confirmed to exist, he said he would celebrate by opening a bottle of champagne.

Asked whether he was excited by the revelations in December last year that data from the Large Hadron Collider had provided the greatest hints yet that the Higgs boson may exist, he said: “From time to time yes. This is something I have lived with for a long time now. It is nearly 48 years since I did this work in 1964.”

However, Prof Higgs, who does not own a television, said he did not keep very closely up to date with latest developments at Cern, relying instead on his former colleagues to fill him in.

He had not heard the news, reported on Thursday, that an explanation had been found for the results of recent experiments at Cern that seemed to show particles called neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. It turned out a loose cable could have been responsible.

He said: “That’s a relief. It looked so surely like some sort of mistake but nobody knew where the mistake was.”

If the Higgs boson is confirmed to exist, Prof Higgs has been widely tipped to be in line for a Nobel Prize.

“I find it hard to imagine but it’s not recent news to me that it’s a possibility,” he said.

Asked how he deals with the attention of being linked to the Higgs boson, the Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh, who rarely gives interviews, said: “Since I’m getting older I find it an advantage that it takes me some time to walk to where my telephone is.”

And he suggested during yesterday’s interview that he thought it was unfair that his name alone had become linked to the particle. Several other scientists came up with similar theories at the same time.

He described how his name had been “plastered all over everything to do with the theory” and that this “neglected to give credit to the other people involved”. He added: “A lot of people have been involved in this in various ways. When it comes to publicity I think the publicity gets a bit biased sometimes.”

He revealed that rather than coming to him during a flash of inspiration during a walk in the Cairngorms in 1964, as commonly reported, the theory had actually been formulated in Edinburgh.

“It was probably somewhere in Edinburgh during a weekend in July,” he said. “It wasn’t a sort of eureka moment. It was a gradual realisation.”

Prof Higgs, who was born near Newcastle but settled in Edinburgh after falling in love with the city when he visited as a student, revealed to The Scotsman yesterday that by carrying out research into his family tree he had discovered that both his grandfather, James Coghill, and great-grandfather had also lived in the capital.

It turned out his great-grandfather, who was born in Caithness in 1805, was a spirit merchant on the Royal Mile next to what is now Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.

“I rather fell for the city the first time I saw it lit up at night,” he said. “There’s no other city in the UK like it.

He said he was “very pleased” to have been honoured with the Edinburgh Award.

“Edinburgh is my adopted home. It’s a place where I wanted to come and live and I managed to arrange my life so it happened.”

The physicist, who has two sons and two grandchildren who all live in Edinburgh, added that getting the award had cemented his feeling that he was now “part of the Edinburgh scene”, which he said had first been hinted to him when he discovered he featured in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels. Prof Higgs is the fifth person to receive the Edinburgh Award, which is given to people who have made an outstanding contribution to the city.

He was presented with the Loving Cup at a ceremony last night and his handprints have been engraved in the stone in the City Chambers’ quadrangle.

The Rt Hon George Grubb, Lord Lieutenant and Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh, said: “His proposal of what has now become known as the Higgs boson has not only significantly advanced our knowledge of particle physics, culminating in the Standard Model, but has also given him a huge international reputation.

“Professor Higgs’ work with the University of Edinburgh has put this city on an international stage and as such he is undoubtedly a most deserved recipient of one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious civic awards.”

And Alan Walker, honorary fellow of the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Particle Physics Experiment Group said: “This award is richly deserved, not only for the work that has led to worldwide acclaim, but for his inspiration of students, many of whom have gone on to do great things. Indeed, some are currently involved in the searches at the ATLAS detector for the Higgs boson.

“This is indeed a very proud day for both the university and the City of Edinburgh.”