An audience with Professor Peter Higgs
The Guardian hosted a live Q&A with Professor Peter Higgs at the Science Museum, London. Peter Higgs is the Nobel Prize winning physicist
Peter Higgs answers questions from young physicists in this hour-long session Q&A session.
Rooks Heath Physics A level students were privileged to be in the audience.
The above picture shows some of the students waiting outside the science museum.
The above picture shows the students waiting to go into the IMAX theatre, where the audience was to take place.
Year 12 student Amis Shanaz (above right) was lucky to be the first person to have a question answered by the Professor.
The above picture shows some more our students waiting patiently for the audience to start.
The above picture shows the Professor at the start of the audience.
You can see the session by clicking
Amis’ question was “How do you describe the Higgs Boson”. The Professor’s answer was quite complicated but to simplify it he said that the Higgs field was analogous to glass or water slowing down light in a process called refraction but in this case particles are affected.
The Higgs Field is an invisible energy field that exists throughout the universe. The field is accompanied by a fundamental particle called the Higgs Boson, which it uses to continuously interact with other particles. As particles pass through the field they are endowed with the property of mass, much as an object passing through treacle (or molasses) will become slower.
Although apparent, mass is not generated by the Higgs field, as creation of matter or energy would conflict with the laws of conservation; mass is, however, transferred to particles from the field, which contains the relative mass in the form of energy. Once the field has endowed a formerly massless particle the particle slows down because it has become heavier.
If the Higgs field did not exist particles would not have the mass required to attract one another, and would simply float around freely at light-speed.
The process of endowing a particle with mass is known as the Higgs Effect.
The Professor was asked what CERN was like. He said that he first went to CERN in 1976 and found it a complete culture shock. He had never been to a place that was so intensively devoted to science. He went on to say how impressed he was with the Science Museum’s CERN exhibition.
The Professor was asked about what he wanted to be when he was growing up. He said he thought he would probably become an electrical engineer like his father but over time he realised he wasn’t practical enough.
Ms Ibrahim will be pleased to know that the Professor was more interested in chemistry when he was in school but it was his interest in the structure of matter that turned his attention to physics.
Another reason for turning to physics was his interest in the discoveries made by an ex-student from his school called Paul Dirac.
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac OM FRS (8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984) was an English theoretical physicist who made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.
It was also during this time that Professor Higgs realised that he wanted to be a theoretician because he was hopeless at experiments.
When he left school the Professor did dither between doing maths or physics at university. He decided on physics because he felt he could pick up the maths as he went along but it would have been difficult to pick up the physics whilst doing a maths degree.
The professor chose particle physics because of his interest in the structure of matter and also because of some of the public lectures he had attended at Bristol University whilst still at school. He learnt about experiments that involved sending photographic film plates into the atmosphere by balloon. This had resulted in the discovery of a particle called a pion.
In particle physics, a pion (short for pi meson, denoted with π) is any of three subatomic particles: π0, π+, and π−. Each pion consists of a quark and an antiquark and is therefore a meson. Pions are the lightest mesons and they play an important role in explaining the low-energy properties of the strong nuclear force.
The professor did not go straight into particle physics after graduating from King’s College London because particle physics was in rather bad state at the time. He chose to do a PhD in molecular physics. After gaining his PhD he moved to Edinburgh University where he began his research into particle physics.
During his sixth form studies the Professor did develop an interest in English literature and philosophy because of an extra-curricular course he took at the same time as his science courses.
The Professor was asked who his science heroes were. He replied that they included Paul Dirac, Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell.
The Professor was asked about the process that led him to the prediction of the Higgs Boson. The professor replied that it wasn’t really a prediction or a fully blown theory.
The work really began in 1964 and six physicists were involved, in different ways, in the investigation. There starting point had been work carried out by a Japanese physicist called Yoichiro Nambu in 1960. He had taken ideas from condensed matter physics and used them in theoretical particle physics. The ideas were associated with something called broken symmetry.
Jeffrey Goldstone took his ideas and suggested that spontaneous symmetry breaking should lead to some massless particles.
This caused a problem which Professor Higgs and his fellow researchers could be solved by introducing gauge fields.
From his own research the Professor was able to turn Goldstone’s massless particle in to a particle with mass. His paper was published in Physics Review letters. At the time it wasn’t a proper theory but work done by Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg four years later did result in a theory.
The two men received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for their contributions to electroweak unification.
In particle physics, the electroweak interaction is the unified description of two of the four known fundamental interactions of nature: electromagnetism and the weak interaction.
The Professor was asked if his ideas had come with a flash of inspiration. He replied that they had been gradual. In 1964 a paper by Walter Gilbert seemed to put an end to the Professor’s work but research done by Julian Schwinger indicated there could be a way out of the problem.
The Professor was able to write a paper that showed that there was a generation on a photon like particle (massless spin 1 particle).
The Professor was asked what it felt like when one of his papers had been rejected with the comment that there was no obvious use in physics. He replied that he was annoyed as he thought he had made an important discovery.
The Higgs theory wasn’t something new and there was something similar involved with superconductors. This superconductor particle was discovered in the Rahman spectrum and measured as a classical wave. Try to remove the particle and the theory becomes rubbish.
Without the Higgs particle the scattering processes will produce bad behaviour at high energies and by 1972 it was known that the particle had to exist.
CERN contains £10 billion pounds worth of equipment and the Professor wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t just used to find the Higgs particle.
There isn’t any link between the mass given to particles in the Higgs field and the bending of space-time due to massive objects. The latter is due to general relativity. Gravity should eventually be included but at the moment has no connection with particle physics.
The gravitation field and the Higgs field are also very different. The Higgs field is scalar and not easy to detect. Gravitational field is a vector.
The Professor was asked what the high-light of his career was and he replied that it was July 1964 when he was supposed to have said that he had the only idea that he had ever had in his life.
The Professor realised that if he was going to win the Nobel Prize then there would be a lot of media attention so he decided to hide away. He found out he had won when a lady got out of her car to congratulate him.
The Professor had seen the Nobel Prize win coming since 1980 when he was first nominated. He found all the media attention very intense and he will be glad to get back to a normal life and retire for the second time next May at the age of 85.
His career from A level student to Nobel Prize winner has been rather scenic. He had always been open to influences from other physics disciplines. He picked up lots of techniques and applied them to particle physics. He did have long periods of not doing much and prior to coming across Nambu’s work had rather lost his way. He did work at Imperial where he wasn’t particularly happy and moved to UCL as a temporary lecturer. He spent some time back at Kings where his interests broadened to general relativity and Einstein gravity gauge theory.
The Professor was asked how it feels to be a well-known scientist such as Einstein. He said he didn’t want to be compared to Einstein as he had only been involved with the discovery of one thing. He also found it difficult dealing with the attention of the media.
The Professor felt that the discovery of the Higgs particle was a good thing as it tidied things up. However it might not turn out to be the standard model Higgs but one of a series.
Hopefully the LHC will discover super symmetrical particles. All this may allow us to understand dark matter.
The Professor felt that the discovery of the Higgs Boson was a good thing because it tidies things up and it may lead to the discovery of supersymmetrical particles at the LHC.
In particle physics, supersymmetry, SUSY, is a proposed extension of spacetime symmetry that relates two basic classes of elementary particles: bosons, which have an integer-valued spin, and fermions, which have a half-integer spin.
The Higgs particle may not turn out to be as simple as first thought but could be a member of a group of particles that will lead to supersymmetry and may eventually enable us to detect dark matter.
Dark matter is a type of matter hypothesized in astronomy and cosmology to account for a large part of the mass that appears to be missing from the universe. Dark matter cannot be seen directly with telescopes; evidently it neither emits nor absorbs light or other electromagnetic radiation at any significant level. Instead, the existence and properties of Dark Matter are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, radiation, and the large-scale structure of the universe.
The Professor felt that the discovery of the Higgs Boson hasn’t made particle physics more popular because the media attention was there before. The interest could be said to have started when LEP started up in 1988.
The LHC itself has increased public attention more.
The Professor is rather embarrassed by the term “The God Particle” as it creates confusion about what it is about.
The Higgs particle isn’t going to be of much use as there isn’t much you can do with it. Its large mass and short lifespan (10-20 seconds) make it very difficult to control. What is of use is all the apparatus that had to be developed to find it such as superconducting magnets, detectors, computer systems (the world wide web) and grid computing to speed up analysis.
The Professor felt that just doing research into things that might prove useful was rather dangerous and rather short sighted. Often the applications come about during research that didn’t set out with a specific purpose.
The Professor felt that the biggest unanswered questions in physics were:
1) What are the links between particle physics and cosmology?
2) Will theorists be able to unify theories that will hopefully include gravity?
3) Will superstring theory prove to be a reality?
The Professor felt that the schools of the future would not be investigating the Higgs mechanism experimentally because of the need of high energy particle accelerators and cryogenic cooling.
The Professor was asked for some last words of advice and he said that for students intending on pursuing a career in physics that it was a good idea to keep an interest in all aspects of physics even if they end up specialising for their PhD.