Peter Higgs’ Big Day
How does it feel to have your namesake particle discovered?
JG: Your peers are calling for you to get a knighthood and the Nobel Prize in physics. Do you think about what might happen next?
PH: Well, come October when the prize is announced I shall probably suffer from what Nobel winner Sheldon Glashow called Nobelitis. You get jittery.
JG: You have always been a rather reluctant science celebrity. Is there a sense of relief and a hope that the attention might now die down?
PH: Relief is certainly part of it. The best I can hope for, I think, is some spells of quiet. At the moment, that's not looking likely. My inbox is full with emails, and letters are piling up on my doormat from people who want me to endorse their Higgs board game or to inaugurate the walkway of their new office atrium. There's even a Spanish microbrewery in Barcelona that wants to know what my favorite beer is so they can brew a similar one in my honor. It is quite mad.
JG: At the moment they are calling the find "a particle consistent with the Higgs." If it turns out to be the elusive particle, what comes next?
PH: In one sense it is the end of the road, in that it's the last piece of the standard model to be discovered. But in another, it's the beginning of where machines like the LHC go next. The next stage of exploration will include measuring all the properties they haven't seen. Hopefully this will provide clues for things like supersymmetry, which could be a comprehensive way to go beyond the standard model because it provides a framework for things like dark matter.
JG: Several types of the Higgs particle have been proposed, fitting various theories of particle physics. Which do you favor?
PH: I'm a fan of supersymmetry, largely because it seems to be the only route by which gravity can be brought into the scheme. It's probably not enough, but getting gravity involved is a way forward. If you have supersymmetry then there are more of these particles.
JG: Have you come up with a snappy one-liner to explain the Higgs mechanism yet?
PH: No, I spend more time telling people that explanations by physicists who should know better are nonsense. The one that I object to is that the acquisition of mass by a particle is like dragging it through treacle. That is a process where you are losing energy. When I try to explain how it works in the way I prefer, there are many people who don't know the 18th-century physics needed. I explain it as being somewhat like the refraction of light through a medium. The model I came up with in 1964 is just the invention of a rather strange sort of medium that looks the same in all directions and produces a kind of refraction that is a little bit more complicated than that of light in glass or water. This is a wave phenomenon, but you can translate it into the language of particles by waving your hands and muttering the magical names of Einstein and de Broglie, who formulated the idea that waves could have the properties of particles, and vice versa.
JG: As several people came up with the mechanism at almost the same time, naming the particle has been a minefield. What do you call it now?
PH: I can't see how it can continue to be called the Higgs boson. I reckon it will become the H boson. Hopefully in a particle-physics context it shouldn't get confused with hydrogen. I do sometimes still call it the Higgs boson so people know what I'm talking about. I don't call it "the God particle." I hope that phrase won't be used as much. I keep telling people that it's someone else's joke, not mine.
JG: It has made the particle sound very accessible.
PH: That's true, but it has connotations that are misleading. It causes some people who don't know how the phrase arose to say foolish things. I've heard some with a background in theology try to make sense of it in terms of that. They don't understand it was a joke and wasn't meant to be taken seriously.
This article originally ran in New Scientist.