Peter Higgs awarded Honorary Doctor of Science

June 27, 2013

From the oration by Professor Nigel Glover:
“As a layman I would now say, I think we have it.” So said Professor Rolf Heuer, Director-General of the European Centre for Nuclear Research and Visiting Professor at Durham University, as he concluded an update on the search for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider almost a year ago. “We have a discovery – we have observed a new particle consistent with a Higgs boson.” Given the widespread coverage of news emanating from CERN over the past couple of years, I’m confident that you will all have heard the name “Higgs” and the word “boson”, even if you’re not completely sure of what either relates to. Hopefully in the next few minutes we can shed some light on Peter Higgs immense contribution to one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the century.
Peter was born in Newcastle in 1929. His father worked for the BBC and the family subsequently moved to Bristol. At his secondary school, Peter was inspired by the honours boards featuring several entries for a certain Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. Peter studied physics at King’s College, University of London, where he earned his PhD in 1954. That same year, he moved to the University of Edinburgh, where he began his teaching and research work and where he was to spend his entire career, except for a hiatus of four years in London. He was promoted to a Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics in 1980. Three years later he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has received numerous prestigious national and international awards including the Rutherford Medal and Prize in 1984, the Dirac Medal and Prize in 1997 and the J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics in 2010. Earlier this year he received the Prince of Asturias award for Technical and Scientific Research and was appointed a Companion of Honour in the New Year Honours List.
It was in Edinburgh in 1964 that Peter, and independently two Belgian physicists, Robert Brout and Francois Englert, formulated the idea of what has become known as the Higgs mechanism.The Standard Model of Particle Physics is the theory that describes the tiny building blocks of the universe. It is widely recognised as one of the biggest achievements in twentieth-century science. It says that everything around us is made of microscopic fundamental particles called quarks and leptons that interact via four kinds of forces. We are most familiar with the forces of electromagnetism and gravity, but the other two are less evident in our daily lives. The strong nuclear force binds atomic nuclei together, rendering them stable and long lived. Without it, there would be no atoms other than hydrogen, and therefore no planets and no life! The weak nuclear force is responsible for the nuclear reactions that cause the sun to shine. As a result, billions of neutrinos from the sun go through our body every second. Luckily we don’t feel them, precisely because the weak force is so incredibly weak. Despite its many successes, the Standard Model has some serious problems. For example, it says all of the elementary particles are massless and, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, travel at the speed of light; just like the photon. Massive particles can never reach light-speed. However, experiments tell us unambiguously that most elementary particles do actually have mass!
In two mathematically elegant and visionary research papers written in the summer of 1964, Peter Higgs developed his theory of the field that interacts with these tiny elementary particles, and weighs them down so that they do not simply whizz around space at the speed of light. An inevitable consequence was the existence of a new kind of particle, a particle which has become known as the Higgs boson.
Over the next fifty years or so, the search for the Higgs boson became a major objective of experimental particle physics, culminating in the discovery reported last July by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Developing these complex and sophisticated experiments to explore Nature under extreme conditions has required new concepts, as well as innovative and groundbreaking technologies. These technologies have in turn transformed the way in which we live, for example, through new cancer therapies, faster medical imaging and, of course, the world wide web.With the discovery of the Higgs boson, we have reached a milestone in our understanding of Nature. But whether the new particle is the Higgs boson of the Standard Model, or simply the lightest of several Higgs bosons predicted in some theories that go beyond the Standard Model, remains an open question. Finding the answer will take time, and may well require a new high precision electron-positron “Higgs factory”.
To quote the Prime Minister, David Cameron, “ The search for the Higgs Boson has inspired so many to get involved in science over the years; hopefully the discovery will inspire the next generation of scientists too, helping to ensure the UK continues to be at the forefront of the next great scientific discoveries.” The press release by Durham University is linked below.
The PhD students depicted with Peter Higgs are (from left to right): Steven Wong, Andrew Papanastasiou, Mark Rodgers, Katy Morgan, David Winn, and James Currie.