Peter Higgs’ Life Scientific


Note that this blog also appears on the BBC website where it has a few video clips (yes, we filmed the radio recording!)

They can also be viewed on the IOP website.

I love name dropping about some of the science superstars I’ve interviewed on The Life Scientific. ‘Richard Dawkins was quite charming on the programme, you know’, or ‘James Lovelock is as sharp as ever’, and so on. So imagine my excitement when I heard we had secured the ultimate science celebrity, Peter Higgs.

One of the things I love about making The Life Scientific on Radio 4 is when guests admonish me afterwards for having putting them at such ease that they opened up to me in a way they may not have done had they just taken a moment to consider that they’d be bearing their soul to two million listeners. I have to admit that, as far as I am aware, I don’t feel I have any insidious talents of persuasion as an interviewer, natural or learned, for extracting fascinating insights or juicy stories from reluctant guests, but merely that I am genuinely interested in chatting to fellow scientists about their lives and work. If I ask them the right questions it’s because I have, together with my producers, thought carefully about it in advance, and if I don’t interrupt my guests when they are in full flow, it’s simply that I don’t want to appear rude.

With Peter Higgs, I knew I had to get something more out of him than to simply regurgitate the popular account of the man as shy and unassuming, and still awkward about having a fundamental particle named after him; or how the Nobel committee were unable to get hold of him on the day of the announcementbecause he had obliviously wandered off to have lunch with friends. Now, I had met Peter before and indeed had spent a nice few days chatting to him last summer at the Cheltenham Science Festival, so I knew he was a genuinely nice bloke who certainly didn’t enjoy being in the limelight very much.

The Life Scientific interview was an opportunity for two theoretical physicists – OK, one who has a Nobel Prize to his name and one who doesn’t, but let’s not split hairs here – to chat about the thrill of discovery and to peek into the workings of nature, whilst the outside world listened in.

The programme will be aired on 18th February, but I share here a few extracts to whet your appetite. Some are audio, others video (as we managed to convince the BBC that it would be great to film the radio recording in the Broadcasting House studio too).

Can you explain the Higgs mechanism in 30 seconds?

At some point in the programme, inevitably, I had to ask him to explain the Higgs mechanism and Higgs field(both more fundamental concepts than the Higgs boson). I leave it to you to judge how that went:

[Clip from the Life Scientific in which Peter talks about what Higgs means]

On fame

When the 2013 Nobel Prize winners were announced, Peter was famously elusive (much to the frustration of the world’s media). Most people romanticised that he was blissfully unaware of all the fuss or just not that interested. In fact, he left the house that morning quite deliberately, to “avoid the media circus” and fully expecting the Nobel Committee to call.
These days, he’s constantly being stopped in the street and asked for autographs, so I asked him whether he enjoyed being famous :

‘The Boson that Bears my Name’

Working alone in Edinburgh in the sixties, Peter Higgs was considered ‘a bit of a crank’. In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new elementary particle, but at the time there was little interest in this now much-celebrated insight. And in the years that followed, Peter himself failed to realise the full significance of the theory that would later transform particle physics.

In July 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found and Peter Higgs shot to fame. This ephemeral speck of elusive energy is now the subject of car adverts, countless jokes and even a song by Nick Cave called the Higgs Boson Blues. But Higgs has always called it the scalar boson or, jokingly, ‘the boson that bears my name’ and remains genuinely embarrassed that it is named after him alone. In fact, three different research groups, working independently, published very similar papers in 1964 describing what’s now known as the Higgs mechanism.

And Higgs told me he’s surprised that another British physicist, Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London didn’t share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics, along with him and Belgian physicist, Francois Englert.

Physics post-Higgs

The LHC is currently undergoing its scheduled upgrade and will be switched on again in 2015 for the next phase of its adventure. But many a research student around the world is still keenly sifting through and analysing the petabytes of data recorded from its most recent run in the hope of finding clues to the existence of yet more new particles, or at least having enough to write up for a thesis. Anyway, there’s certainly plenty of life left in the big machine and lots more interesting physics to discover.

With the discovery of the Higgs finally ticked off our to-do list, attention is turning to the next challenge: to find a new family of particles predicted by our current front-runner theory, called supersymmetry. Higgs would ‘like this theory to be right’ because it is the only way theorists have at the moment of incorporating the force of gravity into the grand scheme of things.

But what if the LHC doesn’t reveal any new particles? Will we have to build an even bigger machine that smashes subatomic particles together with ever-greater energy? In fact, Peter Higgs believes that the next big breakthrough may well come from a different direction altogether, for example by studying the behaviour of neutrino, the elusive particles believed the be the most common in the Universe, which, as Higgs admits, “is not the sort of thing the LHC is good for”.

When it started up in 2008, physicists would not have dreamt of asking for anything bigger than the LHC. But today one hears serious talk of designing a machine that might one day succeed it. One candidate is the somewhat unimaginatively named Very Large Hadron Collider. Such a machine would dwarf the LHC. It would collide protons at seven times higher energy than the maximum the LHC is able to reach. And it would require a tunnel 100 km in circumference. Of course this is not the only proposal on the table and there are plenty of other ideas floating about – none of which come cheap, naturally.

There are certainly plenty more deep mysteries to solve, from the nature of dark matter and dark energy towhere all the antimatter has gone, and we will undoubtedly find the answers (oh, the delicious arrogance of science). Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait as long as Peter Higgs did.

Oh, and what about the famously shy Peter Higgs? Well…

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