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Edinburgh International Book Festival: Frank Close and Peter Higgs

Today the world famous Edinburgh International Festival kicks off, beginning three weeks of the best the arts world has to offer. The Fringe Festival has already begun in earnest with countless alternative, weird, and wacky events happening all over the city. The icing on the cake (for us at least) is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which gets underway on Saturday. Throughout the Book Festival we’ll be bringing you sneak peeks of our authors’ talks and backstage debriefs so that, even if you can’t make it to Edinburgh this year, you won’t miss out on all the action.

First up: Frank Close prepares to interview Professor Peter Higgs in an event on Monday 13 August 2012. This will be the first time the pair will appear together at a public event since the announcement of the breakthrough boson discovery at the Large Hadron Collider.

By Frank Close

When I interviewed Peter Higgs at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose in June, he had been waiting 48 years to see if his eponymous boson exists. On July 4 CERN announced the discovery of what looks very much like the real thing. On August 13 I am sharing the stage with Peter again, this time in Edinburgh. We shall be discussing his boson and my book The Infinity Puzzle, which relates the marathon quest to find it. How has his life changed?

A century ago, Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus. He did so with a piece of apparatus that sat on the top of a small bench, and shared in the experiments with two collaborators, Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden. Half a century later, science was beginning to identify how matter was created in the aftermath of the big bang, 13.6 billion years ago. But why was the debris of that singular event not rushing hither and thither at the speed of light? How did structure emerge, such as atoms, which lead to molecules and even life?

In the space of a few months during the summer of 1964 Peter Higgs, and five others independently, discovered a mathematical answer to that question. That was itself a triumph, as any novel theory had to be consistent with the great pillars of physical wisdom: Einstein’s relativity theory and the laws of quantum mechanics. The theory of the “Gang of Six,” as they have become known, passed all the tests, but one strand remained. How could one make an experiment to verify if the theory was what nature actually uses, and not simply a piece of clever mathematics?

Peter Higgs uniquely answered that, with his insight that there should exist a massive particle, known in the trade as a “boson,” which has in consequence become known as the Higgs boson. The particle is unstable, so if you can produce many examples of it, and record what happens when they decay, you can hopefully prove the theory to be correct.

Higgs bosons were common in the first moments after the big bang, but have merged into an ubiquitous form of ether subsequently. The only effect of this all-pervading field, in theory, is that it gives fundamental particles mass, which leads to structure and form in bulk matter. However, if one could in a small region of space simulate the intense heat of the new-born universe, one might hope to make Higgs bosons bubble into view. To achieve such conditions, the Large Hadron Collider was built at CERN. Quite a contrast to Rutherford’s homely experiment, the LHC is 27 kilometres in circumference, the Higgs boson is detected by banks of electronic equipment the size of a battleship, and teams of thousands — engineers, physicists and computer scientists from around the world — collaborate to make it all possible.

The LHC is designed to recreate the early universe and reveal many profound truths, not just the Higgs boson. Nonetheless, many incorrectly associate it, including its total cost of billions of euros, with the Higgs alone.

In June I asked Peter: “If after all this effort you discovered a mistake in your calculations…” The question was left incomplete, as the audience laughed — nervously? In any event, Peter had no need to answer as on July 4, after 48 years, the wait was over. Next week I shall be asking him, like some interviewer at the Olympics with a gold medalist: “How does it feel?”

Perhaps more seriously, questions might include: Is it all signed sealed and delivered? Have you celebrated yet (and how)? What’s the future for the LHC? What’s the future for Peter Higgs? Or some other questions that you would like to pose… Post your suggested questions in the comments box below but be quick, I am on stage with Peter Higgs at noon, British Summer Time, on Monday 13 August 2012.

Frank Close is a particle physicist, author, and speaker. He is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of several books, including The Infinity PuzzleNeutrinoNothing: A Very Short IntroductionParticle Physics: A Very Short Introduction, and Antimatter. Close was formerly vice president of the British Association for Advancement of Science, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. Read more of what Frank Close has to say about neutrinos here and here. Read Frank’s reflections on the Nobel Prize nominations for the 4 July discovery.

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Recent Comments

  1. Alanna

    Peter Higgs certainly gives a lot of talks and interviews – especially with the folks he owes favors (Close, Ellis, etc). Somehow I still read that interviews are “rare”. It would be nice if we can stop saying these are “rare” and Higgs is so “humble”.

  2. Bruce Johnson

    Like many scientists, I was delighted to hear that the Boson’s existence was confirmed. The only problem I have, is explaining to non – scientific minded friends why this is so significant. Perhaps you could ask Professor Higgs to distill this down to how and why this discovery could impact daily life? Many thanks, Bruce J.

  3. Holly James

    Where does this discovery rank against other major scientific breakthroughs? Is it as significant as Newton with gravity or the recent Mars landing?
    Regards, Holly

  4. […] you may know, our author Frank Close spoke with Peter Higgs on Monday. We put out a call for questions earlier on the blog, but didn’t anticipate the warm enthusiasm of the crowd over Twitter […]

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