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Nobel prize to Higgs, Englert

Brigitte Osterath / reOctober 8, 2013

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded on Tuesday to Peter Higgs of Britain and Francois Englert of Belgium for their pioneering work in particle physics. But Higgs is not the type to appreciate all the commotion.

Emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, British Peter Higgs attends a press conference on the sidelines of his visit to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), on April 7, 2008 in Geneva. Higgs is best known for his theory explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and the Higgs Boson in particular. The CERN is expected to put into service in the summer 2008 the massive Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest scientific instrument ever made which will determine the existence of the Higgs Boson. AFP PHOTO / Fabrice Coffrini/Pool (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the summer of 2012 when it became apparent that the mysterious Higgs boson particle really exists, the media clamor over the stubby Scotsman with the thin gray hair increased: In the 1960s, physicist Peter Higgs had already predicted the existence of the particle, now named after him.

Then, scientists from the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva tracked the particle with their particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the 84-year-old Higgs was bombarded with countless interview requests. "Every time the LHC people reported a hint of the Higgs boson, the press descended on me and asked me for comments," Peter Higgs told the physicist Simon Hands in 2012. The media hype seems to be a nuisance for him.

Physicist through and through

Alan Walker, a colleague at the University of Edinburgh, has some advice for the journalists who want to talk to him, saying that Higgs "prefers those journalists who can follow the physics and report this accurately.”

Belgium physicist Francois Englert, answers journalist's question about the scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, 04 July 2012. Scientists report 04 July 2012 they have discovered a new type of particle consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson, which would explain why there is mass in the universe, the CERN laboratory announced in Geneva. However, the experiment's spokesperson Joe Icandela stressed that the results were preliminary. 'The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.' British scientist Peter Higgs and others developed a theory explaining why matter exists, by introducing the Higgs boson as a key part of the mechanism that allows particles to gain mass. EPA/MARTIAL TREZZINI
Francois Englert of Belgium shared the 2013 Nobel Physics Award with HiggsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Even though Peter Higgs has been an emeritus professor since 1996, he is still a physicist through and through. He always refused to speculate about future events. He terminated his Greenpeace membership when the organization started to campaign against genetic engineering. And when someone asks him about his role in the Higgs-Boson matter, he immediately launches into a scientific explanation. Bloomy descriptions for the layman are not his thing.

A typical statement is: “I am not going to comment on it until it is a five standard deviation result.” For non-scientists: Researchers should be 99.9999426697 per cent sure before Higgs will comment on it.

An essay that changed the world

In 1964 - Peter Higgs was lecturing at the Tait Institute in Edinburgh - he first made note of the idea that made him world-renowned. A previously undiscovered particle should exist - the reason why matter has mass. It was something physicists had failed to explain satisfactorily. “"I thought it was obvious, anyway," he said at a press conference.

(FILES) File photo dated 06 November 2012 of British physicist Peter Higgs in Barcelona, northeastern Spain. Panel of 2013 Prince of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research announced 29 May 2013 Belgian François Englert, Higgs and CERN won the price. EFE/TONI ALBIR (zu dpa «Prinz-von-Asturien-Preis für Entdecker des Higgs-Teilchens» vom 29.05.2013)
Higgs was surprised that the Higgs-Boson particle was detected during his lifetimeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The scientific essay on his world changing theory was only one page long. “I didn't know what the impact was going to be, I just felt that this was the best thing I had ever done,” he later said. “I was very annoyed when the first version of my second paper was rejected.”

The magazine “Physics Letters” did not want to publish his essay. Maybe his theory was too revolutionary. Even today, physics journals do not like this very much. But Peter Higgs was persistent. He added a conclusion and successfully published his essay in the rival US magazine “Physical Review Letters”. And history took its course.

Not the youngest

Now, an oil painting of him hangs at the University of Edinburgh and an acrylic painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. But time has left its marks on him. Higgs sometimes has difficulty talking. He stammers, his hearing is bad and his hands are often shaky.

While his colleagues often use modern and colorful PowerPoint presentations, Higgs, in his lectures about his life work, sticks to the tried-and-tested overhead projector and a pile of handwritten notes.

Failures - private and professional

He did not only miss out on the computer age, he also had little sympathy for mathematically-oriented particle physics. He was not the one to advance his ideas - it was other researchers. The zenith of his scientific career ended just a few years after his earth-shattering idea was published.

Die Illustration zeigt den Zerfall eines fiktiven Higgs-Boson. Dem Nachweis des lange gesuchten Higgs-Teilchen sind Physiker des weltgrößten Teilchenbeschleunigers LHC einen wichtigen Schritt nähergekommen. Das mögliche «Versteck» des Elementarteilchens sei weiter eingeschränkt worden, berichteten Forscher der beiden großen Detektoren ATLAS und CMS am Dienstag beim Europäischen Teilchenforschungszentrum Cern nahe Genf. Foto: Cern +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Illustration of the collapse of a virtual Higgs-Boson particleImage: picture alliance/dpa

The divorce from his wife Jody in 1972 contributed to that. Higgs was devastated. It is said that she felt neglected because Higgs was too determined in his physics.

Nevertheless: “Peter is very much a family man,” said Alan Walker in a speech in 2010. He always took a lot of time for his two sons, and Higgs now has two grandchildren.

He hates the God particle

When a journalist asked him what kind of technological progress can be expected from the his particle, Higgs honestly answered: “I have no idea. I don't know how you apply that to anything useful." For a medical application, to combat tumors, for example, it is far too short-lived, he said.

He also hates the term God particle, as the media commonly calls the Higgs boson particle. He thinks it is embarrassing. He has never used the term and never would. "I'm not a believer in God, but I thought his rather flippant use of the term might be offensive to some people," he said.

'It's nice to be right'

What did Peter Higgs say when the scientists from CERN actually found the Higgs boson particle? “I am quite surprised that it happened during my lifetime. It is nice to be right about something sometimes."

As it must be for a scientist, he points out that there are still many mysteries to solve. There are still many interesting things to measure around the Higgs particle. “The LHC has a lot more do to. I am looking forward to hear more about it.”