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Peter Higgs: honour for physicist who proposed particle

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

image captionHere, the Edinburgh-based physicist stands in front of a portrait by artist Ken Currie

Physicist Peter Higgs, after whom the Higgs boson particle is named, has been recognised in the New Year Honours.

In the 1960s, Prof Higgs and other physicists proposed a mechanism to explain why the most basic building blocks of the Universe have mass.

The mechanism predicts the existence of a Higgs particle, the discovery of which was claimed this year at the Large Hadron Collider.

Prof Higgs has been made a Companion of Honour.

The recognition confers no title but is restricted to a select group of 65 for achievements in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry, or religion.

His discovery announced in July this year of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson immediately led to calls for the 83-year-old to be knighted.

He is now also considered to be a candidate for a Nobel prize, perhaps in conjunction with other physicists who reached similar conclusions at the same time.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Higgs was inspired at school by the work of physicist Paul Dirac, who helped lay the foundations of quantum mechanics and predicted the existence of antimatter.

After obtaining his PhD from King's College London, he held academic positions at the University of Edinburgh and then London before returning to the Edinburgh to lecture at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics.

According to one popular version of the story, Prof Higgs came up with the concept during a walk in the Cairngorms. But in an interview earlier this year, he told BBC News that there was no "eureka moment".

Best explanation of Higgs boson?

image captionScientists' best theory for why different things have mass is the "Higgs field" - where mass can be seen as a measure of the resistance to movement. The "Higgs field" is shown here as a room of physicists chatting among themselves.
image captionA well-known scientist walks into the room and causes a bit of a stir - attracting admirers with each step and interacting strongly with them - signing autographs and stopping to chat.
image captionAs she becomes surrounded by admiring fans, she finds it harder to move across the room - in this analogy, she acquires mass due to the "field" of fans, with each fan acting like a single Higgs boson.
image captionIf a less popular scientist enters the room, only a small crowd gathers, with no-one clamouring for attention. He finds it easier to move across the room - by analogy, his interaction with the bosons is lower, and so he has a lower mass.

The Higgs mechanism explains why the building blocks known as elementary particles have mass. According to the idea, these particles acquire mass through their interaction with a field that permeates space.

The theory predicts the existence of a new particle, which also carries Prof Higgs' name. But six physicists - including Higgs - are now generally credited with the formulation of the concept.

The idea initiated a decades-long effort to detect the particle in experiments. However, it remained elusive until this year, when scientists at the $10bn LHC particle smasher announced that they had found a particle consistent with the Higgs boson.

The probable discovery added a final missing piece to the framework known as the Standard Model, which stands as the most widely accepted theory to explain how particles of matter interact.

At the time of the announcement, Prof Higgs told reporters: "It's very nice to be right sometimes."

He added: "At the beginning I had no idea whether a discovery would be made in my lifetime because we knew so little at the beginning about where this particle might be in mass, and therefore how high an energy machine would have to go before it could be discovered.

"It's been a long wait but it might have been even longer, I might not have been still around."

Shortly after the boson news this year, Edinburgh University, where Higgs is an emeritus professor, announced a new centre that would carry his name. The Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics will be housed at the university's James Clerk Maxwell Building.

The boson earned a nickname - the "God particle" - supposedly because of its importance to the Standard Model. But Prof Higgs stated that he disliked the term because it "might offend people who are religious".

This week, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Prof Higgs criticised fellow academic - and staunch atheist - Richard Dawkins for his stance towards religious believers.

Prof Higgs said: "What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist."

He said he was not religious, but added that "maybe that's just more a matter of my family background than that there's any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two".

Also honoured are Sue Gibson, professor of chemistry at Imperial College London, who becomes an OBE; Prof Richard Holdaway, director of RAL Space, which helps co-ordinate civil space activities, who becomes a CBE; physicist Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, who is knighted; and Carol Vivien Robinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, who is made a Dame.

More on this story

  • Higgs boson-like particle discovery claimed at LHC