Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system.


Physicist doubts work like Higgs boson identification achievable now as academics are expected to ‘keep churning out papers’
  • Peter Higgs: 'Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that'.
Peter Higgs: ‘Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that’. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.

The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.

Edinburgh University’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.

Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’ ”

By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Higgs revealed that his career had also been jeopardised by his disagreements in the 1960s and 70s with the then principal, Michael Swann, who went on to chair the BBC. Higgs objected to Swann’s handling of student protests and to the university’s shareholdings in South African companies during the apartheid regime. “[Swann] didn’t understand the issues, and denounced the student leaders.”

He regrets that the particle he identified in 1964 became known as the “God particle”.

He said: “Some people get confused between the science and the theology. They claim that what happened at Cern proves the existence of God.”

An atheist since the age of 10, he fears the nickname “reinforces confused thinking in the heads of people who are already thinking in a confused way. If they believe that story about creation in seven days, are they being intelligent?”

He also revealed that he turned down a knighthood in 1999. “I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.”

He has not yet decided which way he will vote in the referendum onScottish independence. “My attitude would depend a little bit on how much progress the lunatic right of the Conservative party makes in trying to get us out of Europe. If the UK were threatening to withdraw from Europe, I would certainly want Scotland to be out of that.”

He has never been tempted to buy a television, but was persuaded to watch The Big Bang Theory last year, and said he wasn’t impressed.

 

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The Particle at the End of the Universe.


The difficulty of trying to explain the hunt for the Higgs boson shows that nature will not be so easily defined.
The Large Hadron Collider at Cern probably has another 20 years of use and further glories can be anticipated.

In the early 80s, the US decided to build a massive particle accelerator which was called – with typical American excess – the Superconducting Super Collider. During its early planning stages, the great machine was enthusiastically supported by the vast majority of US congressmen who each hoped the $4.4bn project would be based in his or her state, bringing jobs and prestige.

The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean Carroll The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for the Higgs and the Discovery of a New World, by Sean Carroll

Texas was eventually selected to be the SCC’s home – at Waxahachie, near Dallas. Forty-nine out of the 50 state delegations in Congress promptly dropped their interest in the SSC, leaving it fighting for its life. The Nobel laureate (and SCC defender) Steven Weinberg subsequently appeared on radio with a congressman who wanted to stop the project. “I explained that the collider was going to help us learn the laws of nature and asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority,” Weinberg recalls. “I remember every word of his answer. It was ‘No’.”

A few months later the SSC was cancelled and so Europe took over responsibility for the next-generation collider that physicists said they needed. The Large Hadron Collider – built at the laboratories of Cern, near Geneva – eventually began operations in 2009 when scientists started smashing beams of protons into each other to seek new sub-atomic entities in the debris. Three years later, they found the Higgs boson, the fabled particle responsible for giving mass to objects. Peter Higgs, a Brit, and the Belgian François Englert, who first proposed the particle’s existence, subsequently shared the 2013 Nobel prize for physics.

Crucially, the LHC probably has another 20 years of use and further glories can be anticipated – though Sean Carroll makes it clear that these are unlikely to bring wealth or vast industrial returns. We construct machines such as the LHC, and try to uncover the building blocks of the cosmos, primarily as cultural exercises, he argues in The Particle at the End of the Universe. “Basic science might not lead to immediate improvements in national defence or a cure for cancer but it enriches our lives by teaching us something about the universe of which were are a part,” he tells us. “That should be a very high priority indeed.”

It is a fair point though it begs the simple question: just what have we learned from the billions of euros we have invested in particle physics? What cultural benefits have they brought? A great deal, says Carroll. We now know that sub-atomic particles come in two varieties: fermions that make up matter, and bosons that carry forces. The latter include gluons, photons, gravitons (which carry gravity) and of course the Higgs. The former, the fermions, include leptons such as the electron and quarks of which there are six types: up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom. On top of that we have issues of symmetry, force fields and wave functions.

And that, I am afraid to say, is just the start, for as Carroll makes abundantly and wearisomely clear, these particles, forces and processes combine in highly complex, intricate ways, often inducing numbing incomprehension in the process. “Whenever we have symmetry that allows us to do independent transformations at different points (a gauge symmetry), it automatically comes with a connection field that lets us compare what is going on at those locations,” we are told at one point. I confess the sentence makes no sense to me despite several readings. Nor is it the only chunk of Carroll prose that left me reeling in bafflement.

To be fair to the author, he is dealing with a subject of mind-spinning complexity. Things get messy, he admits. “It’s not supposed to be simple; we’re talking about a series of discoveries that resulted in multiple Nobel prizes,” he states.

It is a good point and Carroll does try to pace his book carefully – at least during the opening sections. New concepts are introduced with restraint and, by adopting a light, slightly gossipy style, he occasionally lightens the reader’s load. On the work of the experimentalists at Cern who strive day and night to drive their machines to the limits, he tells us that “occasionally they are allowed to visit their families, or see the sun, though such frivolities are kept to a minimum”. That perfectly captures the intense, massive collaboration – involving thousands of scientists – that was required to build and run the Large Hadron Collider.

Unfortunately, such levity makes only rare appearances in a book that is sadly disfigured by the over-weaning ambition, of an otherwise talented author, to write the definitive account of the laws of nature for the layman. The resulting confusion suggests such an account is simply not feasible. Nature will not be so easily defined, it seems.

NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS 2013.


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2013 to

François Englert 
Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

and

Peter W. Higgs
University of Edinburgh, UK

“for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider

Here, at last!

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 for the theory of how particles acquire mass. In 1964, they proposed the theory independently of each other (Englert together with his now deceased colleague Robert Brout). In 2012, their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of a so called Higgs particle at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva in Switzerland..

The awarded theory is a central part of the Standard Model of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed. According to the Standard Model, everything, from flowers and people to stars and planets, consists of just a few building blocks: matter particles. These particles are governed by forces mediated by force particles that make sure everything works as it should.

The entire Standard Model also rests on the existence of a special kind of particle: the Higgs particle. This particle originates from an invisible field that fills up all space. Even when the universe seems empty this field is there. Without it, we would not exist, because it is from contact with the field that particles acquire mass. The theory proposed by Englert and Higgs describes this process.

On 4 July 2012, at the CERN laboratory for particle physics, the theory was confirmed by the discovery of a Higgs particle. CERN’s particle collider, LHC (Large Hadron Collider), is probably the largest and the most complex machine ever constructed by humans. Two research groups of some 3,000 scientists each, ATLAS and CMS, managed to extract the Higgs particle from billions of particle collisions in the LHC.

Even though it is a great achievement to have found the Higgs particle — the missing piece in the Standard Model puzzle — the Standard Model is not the final piece in the cosmic puzzle. One of the reasons for this is that the Standard Model treats certain particles, neutrinos, as being virtually massless, whereas recent studies show that they actually do have mass. Another reason is that the model only describes visible matter, which only accounts for one fifth of all matter in the cosmos. To find the mysterious dark matter is one of the objectives as scientists continue the chase of unknown particles at CERN.

The Higgs Boson And A ‘New Physics’ –”Could Make The Speed Of Light Possible”.


god

Scientists hailed CERN’s confirmation of the Higgs Boson in July of 2012, speculating that it could one day make light speed travel possible by “un-massing” objects or allow huge items to be launched into space by “switching off” the Higgs. CERN scientist Albert de Roeck likened it to the discovery of electricity, when he said humanity could never have imagined its future applications.

CERN physicists hope that the “new physics” will provide a more straightforward explanation for the characteristics of the Higgs boson than that derived from the current Standard Model. This new physics is sorely needed to find solutions to a series of yet unresolved problems, as presently only the visible universe is explained, which constitutes just four percent of total matter.

“The Standard Model has no explanation for the so-called dark matter, so it does not describe the entire universe – there is a lot that remains to be understood,” says Dr. Volker Büscher ofJohannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

Scientists hailed CERN’s confirmation of the Higgs Boson in July of 2012, speculating that it could one day make light speed travel possible by “un-massing” objects or allow huge items to be launched into space by “switching off” the Higgs. CERN scientist Albert de Roeck likened it to the discovery of electricity, when he said humanity could never have imagined its future applications.

CERN physicists hope that the “new physics” will provide a more straightforward explanation for the characteristics of the Higgs boson than that derived from the current Standard Model. This new physics is sorely needed to find solutions to a series of yet unresolved problems, as presently only the visible universe is explained, which constitutes just four percent of total matter.

“The Standard Model has no explanation for the so-called dark matter, so it does not describe the entire universe – there is a lot that remains to be understood,” says Dr. Volker Büscher ofJohannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

The discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson, an elusive particle thought to help explain why matter has mass, was hailed as a huge moment for science by physicists. In July of 2012, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, announced the discovery of a new particle that could be the long sought-after Higgs boson. The particle has a mass of about 126 gigaelectron volts (GeV), roughly that of 126 protons.

The new evidence came from an enormously large volume of data that has been more than doubled since December 2011. According to CERN, the LHC collected more data in the months between April and June 2012 than in the whole of 2011. In addition, the efficiency has been improved to such an extent that it is now much easier to filter out Higgs-like events from the several hundred million particle collisions that occur every second.

The existence of the Higgs boson was predicted in 1964 and it is named after the British physicistPeter Higgs. It is the last piece of the puzzle that has been missing from the Standard Model of physics and its function is to give other elementary particles their mass. According to the theory, the so-called Higgs field extends throughout the entire universe. The mass of individual elementary particles is determined by the extent to which they interact with the Higgs bosons.

“The discovery of the Higgs boson represents a milestone in the exploration of the fundamental interactions of elementary particles,” said Professor Dr. Matthias Neubert, Professor for TheoreticalElementary Particle Physics and spokesman for the Cluster of Excellence PRISMA at JGU.

On the one hand, the Higgs particle is the last component missing from the Standard Model of particle physics. On the other hand, physicists are struggling to understand the detected mass of the Higgs boson. Using theory as it currently stands, the mass of the Higgs boson can only be explained as the result of a random fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe at a level of accuracy of one in one quadrillion.

The Higgs helps explains how the world could be the way that it is in the first millionth of a second in the Big Bang.

Physicist Ray Volkas said “almost everybody” was hoping that, rather than fitting the so-called Standard Model of physics — a theory explaining how particles fit together in the Universe — the Higgs boson would prove to be “something a bit different”.

“If that was the case that would point to all sorts of new physics, physics that might have something to do with dark matter,” he said, referring to the hypothetical invisible matter thought to make up much of the universe.

It could be that the Higgs particle acts as a bridge between ordinary matter, which makes up atoms, and dark matter, which we know is a very important component of the universe.

“That would have really fantastic implications for understanding all of the matter in the universe, not just ordinary atoms,” he added. De Roeck said scrutinising the new particle and determining whether it supported something other than the Standard Model would be the next step for CERN scientists.

Definitive proof that it fit the Standard Model could take until 2015 when the LHC had more power and could harvest more data.

Instead, De Roeck was hoping it would be a “gateway or a portal to new physics, to new theories which are actually running nature” such as supersymmetry, which hypothesises that there are five different Higgs particles governing mass.

For the image at the top of the page, two teams of astronomers used data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes to map the distribution of dark matter in a galaxy cluster known as Abell 383, which is located about 2.3 billion light years from Earth. Not only were the researchers able to find where the dark matter lies in the two dimensions across the sky, they were also able to determine how the dark matter is distributed along the line of sight. Several lines of evidence indicate that there is about six times as much dark matter as “normal”, or baryonic, matter in the Universe. Understanding the nature of this mysterious matter is one of the outstanding problems in astrophysics.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally-bound structures in the universe, and play an important role in research on dark matter and cosmology, the study of the structure and evolution of the universe. The use of clusters as dark matter and cosmological probes hinges on scientists’ ability to use objects such as Abell 383 to accurately determine the three-dimensional structures and masses of clusters.