The hunt for the Higgs Boson nears completion

Peter Higgs is confident his theoretical particle will be confirmed

A view of part of the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN in Meyrin, Switzerland. Photograph: John Von Radowitz /PA Wire

A view of part of the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN in Meyrin, Switzerland. Photograph: John Von Radowitz /PA Wire

Thu, May 2, 2013, 20:26

As word of the next round of Nobel Prize winners begins to circulate don’t be too surprised if the list includes the name Peter Higgs. He and five colleagues solved a puzzle 50 years ago that helped physicists understand how matter works.

Of course at the time back in 1964 when working at Edinburgh University they didn’t immediately realise the import of the theory they had devised for how matter gets its mass. “We didn’t realise at the time we had discovered something that would actually work,” he said tonight just prior to giving a talk at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

What the researchers proposed was a unique form of subatomic particle, one that had the amazing ability to create a field in which other passing particles had mass.

This theoretical particle, dubbed the Higgs Boson much to Prof Higgs’ dismay, represented a small but important part of a jigsaw puzzle that attempted to explain all the forces arising between the subatomic particles that allow atoms to form.

There were other missing pieces of the puzzle back then awaiting confirmation through experiments conducted by particle accelerators, giant atom smashers at Fermilab in the US and Cern near Geneva. And one by one they were discovered, the theoretical particle supplanted by a real one, all but the Higgs.

Part of the problem lay with that generation of accelerators. They just didn’t have the ability to reach energies high enough to see the Higgs.

It became known as the Higgs Boson by accident and in the years that followed the 1964 research it was Higgs particle, Higgs Field, Higgs mechanism, “Higgs everything”, he told the audience during his talk. He regretted this given it diminished the contributions made by his collaborators.

Yet all would have rejoiced last July when the most powerful accelerator in the world the Large Hadron Collider at Cern begin returning data that a “Higgs-like” boson had been found. Prof Higgs was there for the announcement and the reaction that followed.

“It was a really remarkable occasion,” he said. It was as much the announcement as the spontaneous standing ovation from the audience that followed, he added. “It was a great experience to be there.”

Final confirmation is awaited, but data analysis continues and Prof Higgs seemed quietly confident that the Higgs finally has its experimental proof. “I had no idea whether it would be done in my lifetime,” he said.