WALKING in the mountains almost 50 years ago, Newcastle-born Peter Higgs may not have realised that one day his name would be on the lips of half the world.
Even a few years ago, the quiet and unassuming physicist was a virtual unknown outside academic circles, with his greatest work better known by its more media-friendly moniker, the God particle.
But the former physics professor, who is now 84, wept yesterday at the globe’s biggest laboratory when it was announced that his fellow scientists have seemingly proved him right, finding evidence of what they think is the “glue” that holds the universe together.
“I’m rather surprised that it happened in my lifetime,” said the son of a BBC sound engineer who grew up in Elswick, in Newcastle’s West End.
“I certainly had no idea it would happen in my lifetime at the beginning, more than 40 years ago, because at the beginning people had no idea about where to look for it, so it’s really amazing for me.
“I think it shows amazing dedication by the young people involved with these colossal collaborations to persist in this way, on what is a really a very difficult task. I congratulate them.”
In 1964, while walking through the Cairngorms in Scotland, Prof Higgs came up with the idea that particles – also known as bosons – derive their mass from the speed at which they pass through a field of much smaller particles, which were given the name Higgs bosons.
The idea became one of the main tenets on which quantum physicists built the Standard Model of how the universe works and scientists have spent nearly 50 years hunting down the elusive proof that the Higgs boson exists.
Such efforts took a leap forward with the opening in 2008 at CERN – the European Laboratory for Particle Physics – of the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile long, high energy particle accelerator that was constructed under the mountains of Switzerland.
Among those putting forward their expertise to help devise and analyse the experiments at the LHC were members of Durham University’s Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology.
The group’s director, Professor Valentin Khoze, said the mounting evidence that the particle had been produced and detected was “a triumph for particle physics.” “Higgs boson play an absolutely vital role in our very understanding of fundamental physics,” he said. “Without the Higgs particle, other particles such as electrons and quarks would be massless and the universe would not be what it is.
“Now, with the amazing results from the LHC, we are finally starting to find the experimental evidence that the Higgs really exists.”
But Prof Khoze said the work was far from over and, for scientists, the second stage of the story could be even more exciting than the first.
“This discovery provides us with a window to new physics, a tool for the exploration of the truly unknown.
“The next stage will be a detailed and careful study of its properties. Successful completion of this second stage will bring us closer to uncovering new physics, explaining dark matter and other mysteries of the universe.”
The first suggestion that scientists may have found a Higgs-like particle came last December but, ever cautious – particularly in the wake of last year’s later- disproved claim from CERN that neutrinos had been observed travelling faster than light – the academics sifted through billions of tests worth of data to try to confirm their initial results.
Yesterday, they said two of the LHC’s giant detectors, CMS and Atlas, had delivered results that reached the definitive “five sigma” level of proof, when the likelihood of a statistical fluke is one in a million.
Future research may uncover more than one Higgs boson, or find better ways of describing the universe than the Standard Model, which would have had to be torn up if the event the particle didn’t exist.
One theory, called “supersymmetry”, claims more than five Higgs-like particles may be out there, each with completely different properties.
Professor Jon Butterworth, from University College London, said regardless of the next step, right now he was just over the moon.
“We don’t know exactly what we’ve discovered but it’s fundamental, new and exciting, and it looks like the Higgs boson,” he said.
“I think it’s something so like the Standard Model Higgs that any differences will be incidental. We still need to see that it does the job the Higgs is there for, which is to give particles mass. I feel absolutely elated.”
Even Prime Minister David Cameron passed on his congratulations. “It is a very big step forward and we should congratulate everyone involved,” he said.
Page 2 - Atoms, protons and pasties >>
Atoms, protons and pasties
TO make matter you only need three things – electrons, an up quark and a down quark.
Using the quarks you can make protons and neutrons, and when you put a few of those together with electrons you get an atom.
However, scientists have so far discovered 12 sub-atomic particles and there could be many more.
To try and make sense of what all these particles are for, scientists have organised them depending on how they behave, almost like the periodic table of elements.
And to try to find if there are any other varieties they use a particle accelerator to smash protons together.
But when you smash particles together what you get out isn’t necessarily what you put in, as the particles turn into a kind of energy - known as a force-carrying boson – and that can be used to make any other particle for which you have enough energy.
Put simply, it’s like two people walking into Greggs, one with enough money for a cheese and onion pasty and the other enough for a packet of jam doughnuts.
The pair bump into each other and drop their wallets, with the money going everywhere.
The wallets are the protons and the coins inside the bosons.
Now with the combined coins the pair can buy anything up to the value of the cash, be that one chicken tandoori sandwich or a steak bake, sausage roll and a cupcake.
The more money - energy - in the two wallets to begin with, the more possible outcomes - to the point where if there’s enough money the duo might even get to go and buy something off the completely different menu in the McDonalds next door.
What Peter Higgs predicted was given enough energy you would see the presence of a particle called the Higgs Boson, which gives other particles mass.
What is mass?
To most people mass means the amount of "stuff" something has to it - but an electron has mass but no volume, so there’s no "stuff" in it.
So the best way to think of mass is probably just as a characteristic of a particle, like charge. And when two things have mass they will attract together.
Where does the mass come from?
Imagine a children’s ball pool that covers the entire universe.
Every particle feels the ball pool as it moves, but some can pass through it faster than others. Those that pass through it more quickly have a small mass, while those slowed down a lot have a large mass.
Why has it taken so long to find this Higgs-like particle?
Well if you smash two particles together and make a Higgs it may go on to form, say, two bottom quarks. But like the Greggs analogy there’s many ways to afford a pepperoni slice, so buying the pizza isn’t an indication of the coinage used.
Why hasn’t it been seen until now?
The intermediate stage of the process in which the particles become energy before turning back into particles might only appear for 0.00000000000000000000001 seconds and obviously you only get one chance to spot it.
To reach this stage has required the Large Hadron Collider to smash protons together millions of times, every day, for years and then a small army of scientists to analyse the results and look for the tiny variance that proves the existence of a particle in a Higgs-like energy state.
Mountain trek led to moment of inspiration
UNTIL recently, Professor Peter Higgs was as unknown to most of the world as the famous particle that bears his name.
Today the quiet physicist, now retired from the University of Edinburgh, is fast becoming a global celebrity as creator of the theory behind the God particle.
And the man born in Newcastle in 1929, the son of a BBC sound engineer, could now be eligible for a Nobel Prize.
Prof Higgs, 83, has been waiting since 1964 for science to catch up with his ideas about the Higgs boson.
It was in that year he dreamed up the concept in a moment of inspiration while walking in the Cairngorms.
Two scientific papers followed, the second of which was initially rejected and then finally published in the respected journal Physical Review Letters.
Prof Higgs’s groundbreaking proposal was that particles acquire mass by interacting with an all-pervading field spread throughout the universe. The more they interact, the more massive and heavy they become.
A "boson" particle was needed to carry and transmit the effect of the field – the Higgs boson.
After his family moved to Bristol, he proved a brilliant pupil at Cotham Grammar School before going on to read theoretical physics at King’s College London.
He was awarded first-class honours in 1950, and after failing to secure a lectureship at King’s College, set off for Scotland. In 2006, he retired from the University of Edinburgh, assuming the title of emeritus professor.
Never one to blow his own trumpet, Prof Higgs is described by friends and colleagues as very unassuming and shy. Some believe his retiring nature might even have held back his career. Now, despite his best efforts to keep a low profile, the spotlight will be fixed on him for some time.