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.
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