Peter Higgs tells James Elwes that without the Higgs boson, our physical model of the universe does not workby Jay Elwes / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Seeing the light: this portrait of Peter Higgs by Ken Currie hangs in the Edinburgh University physics department
In the next few months, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern may detect one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe: the elusive Higgs boson. The collider, one of the most ambitious machines ever built—which sends two beams of subatomic particles around an underground circuit 27km in circumference, to crash into each other at close to the speed of light—may already have given them the crucial data.
The Swiss government asks Cern, the joint European research institution, to shut down the circuit in winter, to spare it the demand on the electricity grid; these cold months are used for analysing the torrent of data from the summer’s experiments. If scientists find the Higgs boson, then it will be one of the greatest advances ever in physics. The world’s attention—including that of the Nobel committee, will turn to, among others, Peter Higgs, 82, emeritus professor at the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Edinburgh.
But if they don’t find the particle, the consequences could be even more interesting—as Peter Higgs explains in this interview for Prospect. The particle that he has argued must exist “plays such a role” in the modern theory of the structure of the physical world “that if you tried to modify the theory to take it out, the whole thing becomes nonsense.”
Higgs takes the bus south through Edinburgh to the James Clerk Maxwell building of the science faculty, where a large portrait of him (above) looks out over the main staircase. When I accompany him to a talk given there by a Cern scientist, at one point, the lecturer jokes to the audience that he is attempting to make the discussion accessible to all, “even to you, Peter,” he says, gesturing towards Higgs. There is a communal intake of breath; students crane to look as they realise who is sitting in the front row. After, they crowd round asking to have their photos taken with Higgs, who obliges.