When Peter Higgs first proposed that an invisible field strewn across space gave mass to the building blocks of the universe, the theory was ridiculed by some of the most respected minds of the time.
His first paper was rejected by a journal, while other scientists accused him and his colleagues of failing to grasp the basic principles of physics.
Despite the sleights Prof Higgs, at the time an 34-year-old physicist at Edinburgh University, was convinced his idea was right although he never envisaged being able to prove it.
Yesterday, 48 years on, his radical concept was finally proved correct by an international team of physicists at the Cern laboratory using a £6 billion piece of equipment designed to uncover the secrets of the Universe.
Announcing the latest results from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, scientists from confirmed they had discovered a new particle bearing all the hallmarks of a Higgs Boson.
The Higgs Boson helps to explain how fundamental particles gain their mass – a property which allows them to bind together and form stars and planets rather than whizzing around the universe at the speed of light.
Prof Higgs, 83, who travelled to Switerland to witness the landmark announcement first-hand, was visibly moved as the presentation was rounded off to tumultuous applause from a wildly excited audience, some of whom had waited overnight to secure their seats.
Choking back tears, he said: “I would like to add my congratulations to everyone involved in this achievement. It’s really an incredible thing that it’s happened in my lifetime.”
His response was characteristically modest. Professor Higgs has repeatedly resisted requests for interviews and comments, insisting the limelight should be taken by the scientists who have proved that his theory is correct.
He has long been uncomfortable even having his name attached to the particle, which is the key missing cornerstone of the Standard Model of physics.
The son of a BBC sound engineer from Newcastle, he was raised in Bristol and excelled at Cotham Grammar School.
During a school assembly he saw the name of a former pupil, the great quantum physicist P.A.M. Dirac, on an honours board and decided to read about his work. He was quickly hooked, reading as much as he could find about the subject to satisfy his curiosity.
He went on to King’s College, London, where he graduated with a first class honours in 1950. He was denied a lectureship at the university, however, so became a researcher at Edinburgh University.
His “eureka” moment reportedly came in a flash of inspiration while on a walking trip to the Cairngorms. When one of his initial papers was rejected, he insisted the journal had clearly not understood him.
Upon publication in 1964, he and his colleagues were ridiculed as young pretenders and urged to abandon their research or risk “professional suicide”.
Prof Gerry Guralnik, an American researcher who published a paper on the same subject with colleagues Tom Kibble and Dick Hagen within months of Higgs, recalled a galling encounter with Werner Heisenberg, the esteemed German physicist who gave his name to the famous “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics.
He said: “A lot of famous people told us that we were wrong. Heisenberg told me I did not understand the rules of physics, which is pretty scary if you are 26 and are worried about getting a job.”
Yesterday, the scientific community was united in its praise for Prof Higgs, with some calling for him to be given a knighthood.
Prof Stephen Hawking said Prof Higgs deserved a Nobel Prize for his work, but admitted the discovery of the new particle had come at a cost.
He said: “I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle wouldn’t be found. It seems I have just lost $100.”
What has been found?
Both of the Cern teams have announced the discovery of a new particle which is consistent with theories about the Higgs Boson. Although they haven’t proven it is definitely a Higgs, there is little doubt in most experts’ minds that the sought-after particle has indeed been unearthed at last.
What does it mean?
Finding the Higgs Boson proves the existence of the Higgs Field, a force which provides fundamental particles – the building blocks of the Universe – with their mass. Without mass they would simply zip around the cosmos at the speed of light and never form into stars and planets. It is also the last missing cornerstone of the Standard Model of Physics, which explains what the Universe is composed of.
Will it have any practical applications?
Immediately, no. The purpose of the research was simply to uncover one of the Universe’s great mysteries and further our understanding of science. But experts firmly believe it will be of paramount importance in future research which could provide new breakthroughs.
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