Cosmic theory's Higgs lives to see his boson
GENEVA (Reuters) - Peter Higgs was no good in the lab, but he never doubted that one day his theory of a powerful subatomic particle that bears his name would be proven right in practice. His surprise was that he lived to see that day.
Speaking at Geneva's CERN research centre on Wednesday after its experimental physicists announced the discovery of a new particle, a boson much as Higgs imagine half a century ago, he confessed to Reuters he felt "rather dazed but very pleased".
As a schoolboy in Bristol in the southwest of England, the now 83-year-old Higgs admitted to being "incompetent" at science in the laboratory. He went on, however, to specialise in the theoretical realm, applying mathematics to exploring the outer reaches of man's understanding of the universe that makes us.
One paper he despatched from Edinburgh University in 1964, as he was formulating a theory of an elusive particle to explain how an ordered universe emerged from Big Bang, was rejected by an academic physics journal edited at CERN.
But he gave no sign of bearing a grudge when he spent the day at the institution watching its experimental experts vindicate him: "For me personally it is just the confirmation of something I did 48 years ago, and it is very satisfying to be proved right in some way," Higgs said in the interview.
"I haven't been dreaming about it for 48 years because I had other things to do with my life. At the beginning, I had no expectation that I would still be alive when it happened."
That experimental proof had been delivered in his own lifetime was, he said, "incredible" and he suggested the moment would have greatly surprised his early science teachers: "I certainly did some lab work as a schoolboy in Bristol. I was incompetent," he said, a boyish grin flitting across his round face.
For nearly three decades, physicists at CERN and the U.S. Fermilab research centers had tried to find what had become known as the "Higgs boson" in particle colliders creating mini- explosions duplicating the Big Bang of 13.7 billion years ago.
And although CERN hedged its bets in their report on Wednesday, and held back on claiming it had discovered the Higgs until they had time to "get inside" it, they were sure they had found a new particle.
The rotund, bespectacled theoretical physicist who for many years held a professorial chair at Edinburgh University, gave no hint of schadenfreude over the fact that his original idea was rejected by a CERN journal as "of no relevance to physics."
"What I did 48 years ago wasn't very specific," he said. Earlier, at a news conference, he had refused to get into what his feelings were. "This day belongs to CERN and the people who work here," he insisted.
Higgs, who has strong views on what is good and bad about science and resigned from a movement for nuclear disarmament when it began campaigning against the harnessing of nuclear energy, makes clear he has no religious faith.
He said he was not worried by the fact that it was not yet finally established whether the new boson - sometimes dubbed, to his disgust and that of all CERN scientists, "the God particle" - was exactly as he conceived it.
His vision of a particle linked to a force field that attracted the flying debris of the Big Bang and turned it into stars, planets and galaxies "was about a type of theory and I'm not particularly bothered if this is a single Higgs boson or one of several", he told Reuters.
But, he added, it would be "rather surprising" if study of the new boson over coming months in CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) showed "deviations from the expectations for the properties of any kind of Higgs boson".
CERN experts say that if such a scenario -- discovery that the new boson was something totally outside their expectations - were to unfold, the whole modern concept of how the universe works would have to be reviewed.
The Higgs, in its basic form, has long been seen as filling in the last major gap in the so-called Standard Model of physics - drawn up in the 1970s - describing the way the universe works at the most elementary level.
"From the point of view of future physics," said the scientist - who has two sons, a computer engineer and a jazz musician - "It seems to me that in one way it is the end of an era in that it appears to complete the Standard Model.
"But the more important thing is that studying it (the new particle) will lead onto what lies beyond that model which we hope will have more interesting connections with cosmology, the dark matter problem and that sort of thing."
CERN physicists say the finding of the boson - widely hailed as the biggest advance in knowledge about the cosmos for over 30 years - will open the door to probing this and other ideas that were once the stuff of science fiction.
Gravity remains unexplained outside the model, although it is the force that created the black holes at the center of galaxies and elsewhere in the universe, which suck in anything that comes close to them.
Other concepts which scientists say could now be examined more closely are super-symmetry, the idea that all particles have a much heavier counterpart, the "dark matter" believed to make up about 23 percent of the universe but cannot be seen, and "dark energy" that constitutes about 72 per cent.
"You may call it science fiction, but to me these are speculative theories which have been around for quite some time, and it's only now they are beginning to be tested," said Higgs.
"As with the Higgs boson, there's a lot of theoretical motivation for some parts of these theories to be true, in particular super-symmetry, which I think most people would say is a necessary feature of any theory that is going to unify the Standard Model with gravity.
"If we don't unify these theories with gravity, there is something very funny going on because gravity on its own doesn't fit in properly with quantum theory" - the over-riding theory of the nature of matter which evolved in the first half of the 20th century.
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