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Higgs spotted in Bristol

Peter Higgs

(Courtesy: Dirk Dahmer)

By Matin Durrani

It’s been a hectic few days for 82-year-old Peter Higgs.

The retired Edinburgh University particle theorist, after whom the famous boson is named, has been in Bristol for the last two days undertaking a series of public engagements.

First up was a visit yesterday to Cotham School, where Higgs was a pupil for five years during the Second World War when his father – a BBC engineer – was posted to the city. Higgs is in fact not the only great physicist the school has produced – the other stellar pupil was Paul Dirac, whose name the young Higgs used to see displayed prominently on the school’s honours boards. Higgs, who was back at the school for the first time since the war, signed autographs as he opened a new science block, appropriately named The Dirac–Higgs Science Centre, accompanied by the media.

In the evening, the self-effacing Higgs then took part in an event at St George’s Bristol that was part of the city’s Festival of Ideas. In front of an audience of several hundred people, he was joined on stage by Graham Farmelo, author of the award-winning Dirac biography The Strangest Man, who outlined Dirac’s achievements and his links with Bristol. Higgs then took part in a conversation with Observer science editor Robin McKie, who asked him, among other things, how he would celebrate if the Higgs boson is found. To much amusement, Higgs replied that he had “a leftover bottle of champagne from Christmas” but that he hadn’t yet “put it in the fridge”.

Today, Higgs paid a visit to IOP Publishing, where I interviewed him for Physics World. Inspired by questions posted by readers on our Facebook page and sent to us via Twitter, I quizzed Higgs about his early work on symmetry breaking, his thoughts about the search for the Higgs at CERN and his wider views on physics. We’ll be posting the interview online in the next month or two, so stay tuned for that.

Higgs still remains embarrassed at having a particle named after him, feeling that it places too much of the credit on him at the expense of other theorists. But during our interview, even he on occasion dropped the “so-called” from the “so-called Higgs boson”, the “so-called Higgs field” and the “so-called Higgs mechanism”. It just gets tiring after a while, I suppose.

As I write, the indefatigable Higgs is off to give a colloquium in the main lecture theatre at the physics department at the University of Bristol, entitled “My life as a boson”. Over lunch I asked Higgs if that wouldn’t be the perfect title for his autobiography. Self-effacing as ever, Higgs replied that, when it came to writing books, he was simply “too lazy”. So if you want to hear more about his life, you’ll have to wait for the Physics World interview.

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