The scientist whose theories led to the discovery of the “God particle” has said it was “nice to be right” but admitted he has no idea how it can be put to practical use.
• The Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics will support future research in theoretical physics
Professor Peter Higgs, from Edinburgh, came up with the idea of the Higgs boson, a particle that helps explain how the universe holds together, 48 years ago.
This week, scientists working at the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider in Cern, near Geneva, finally proved it existed.
Yesterday, at a press conference at the University of Edinburgh, the 83-year-old retired professor said: “It’s very nice to be right sometimes. It has certainly been a long wait.”
He said he had no idea the discovery would be made in his lifetime, adding: “I might not have been still around.”
Giving his first detailed reaction to the discovery of the Higgs boson, he said he had not doubted its existence, even though it has taken nearly half a century to find, because it was so crucial to understanding the way the universe holds together.
“It was very hard for me to understand how it couldn’t be there,” he said.
However, Prof Higgs said he did not think the discovery of the particle could necessarily be put to any useful purpose, such as advancements in medicine, because of its fleeting lifespan.
Something that lasts longer could have applications such as attacking tumours to help treat cancer, he said. “It [the Higgs Boson] is around for a very short time – a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second.
“I don’t know how you apply that to anything useful.”
The audience heard how Prof Higgs celebrated the discovery, being described as one of the most momentous breakthroughs of the past century, by drinking a can of London Pride beer, while his colleagues opted for sparkling wine.
It was revealed yesterday that a new centre at the University of Edinburgh would be established in Prof Higgs’ name.
Called the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics, it will continue research into solving the mysteries of the universe.
It has been given £750,000 funding by the university.
Prof Higgs is widely tipped to be eligible for an even bigger accolade – a Nobel prize. Asked if he thought he would now be in line for the prestigious award, he joked: “I don’t know. I don’t have close friends on the Nobel Committee.”
He said although he still followed theoretical physics “from a distance”, he now left discoveries to younger minds.
By the time he retired from the university in 1996, he said, he realised the people making progress were those 30 years younger than him and at times he felt he was being “stupid”.
“I couldn’t at that age acquire sufficient new mathematical skills that were needed, so I stopped,” he said.
He refused to be drawn on whether the discovery of the Higgs boson proved there was no God, saying the name “God particle” was thought up by the publisher of a book whose author originally wanted to call it the “goddamn particle” because it was so hard to find.
The Higgs boson helps to explain how fundamental particles gain their mass – a property that allows them to bind together and form stars and planets rather than whizzing around the universe at the speed of light.
The new Higgs Centre will aim to solve some of the remaining mysteries of the universe, including working out the exact properties of the Higgs boson and finding the nature of dark matter.