Exclusive: Peter Higgs Speaks After Proof Of His Groundbreaking 'God Particle'

In his only interview following news that confirmed the existence of his Higgs boson, the British physicist recounts the long years of uncertainty, the tears at Wednesday's announcement -- as well as a certain bet that Stephen Hawking must now pa

All smiles now (EdinburghUniversity)
All smiles now (EdinburghUniversity)

GENEVA - "Hello, I remember you!" Peter Higgs says, arriving with a smile on his face. At 82, Higgs has lost none of his composure, his modesty and, most importantly, his memory. He can talk about the most abstruse concepts all night long. Four years ago, Le Temps met him at his home in Edinburgh. At the time, he told us how his colleagues at the CERN "must of thought I was a bumpkin" for proposing his theory, to the point where they first refused to publish his work.

On Wednesday, the physicist who unwittingly gave his name to the famous boson was at the CERN with the other theoreticians who had worked on the same topic, including the Belgian François Englert. Between a sandwich and his flight, Higgs gave an exclusive interview to Le Temps and La Stampa.

LE TEMPS: How do you feel after the presentation of these results?
PETER HIGGS: I was deeply moved. Let's say it was very emotional moment. Especially near the end…

We saw you cry...
Yes, I don't know why. I connected with what was happening to me, and I felt emotionally involved, even though I'd carefully stood apart from all of this for a while.

Did you think it would have taken 48 years for this discovery to be made?
At first, I wasn't sure this particle would be found during my lifetime. But as experiences gradually went on, first at the LEP a previous accelerator at the CERN, then at the Fermilab in the United States, the expectation became increasingly realistic.

Do you think that our time is more exciting than the 1960s for particle physics?
Yes. The most interesting thing now is going to be testing the theories that go beyond the "standard model" for describing the Universe, like "supersymmetry." Because with the discovery of this new boson, this model is essentially complete. And, according to measures, the discovered mass of this particle, 125 GeV, means it might not be unique. There may be something there that belongs to a larger vision. A particle with a mass of 125 GeV was also postulated in other theories.

How do you think the atmosphere for research has changed over the past 50 years?
I can only speak for particle physics. But it has become obvious that on the experimental side, there has been a huge evolution in the number of people who have to collaborate because of the gigantic size of the instruments used, but also because of the enormous task that is data analysis. It is unavoidable to have, on one machine like the LHC, two groups and two detectors who are in "competition," who are pursuing the same goal. Otherwise with only one instrument, we wouldn't know if the results were tainted with experimental biases. However, having two institutes the size of CERN isn't that necessary.

And in the theoretical domain?
It's a bit different. When the basic status of a theory is clear, and that all that needs to be cleared are details, you can collaborate. But if the main structure of a hypothesis isn't established, and you want to change the paradigm - like it was the case in the 1960s - it's better to work alone.

Speaking of physics theory, another important specialist, the astro-physicist Stephen Hawking, lost his bet.* He had said he didn't believe in the Higgs boson's existence, which had caused a slight spat between the two of you…
In 2002, a Scottish journalist, during a dinner meant to be private, absolutely wanted me to react to Stephen Hawking's comments. I said one shouldn't pay too much attention to what Hawking was saying because he was a celebrity but not a specialist of elementary particle theory. In any case, Stephen Hawking made his bet with another scientist, Gordon Kane, from the University of Michigan. Now he's the one who needs to go get his money.

What are you going to do tomorrow?
Try to avoid interviews as much as possible before the press conference on Friday. Tomorrow I'll be at home in Edinburgh with my family to relax and throw a small party. We've given instructions to put some champagne in the fridge.

*After the discovery, Stephen Hawking told the BBC "It seems like I have just lost $100…" before saying "This result should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize!"

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo - EdinburghUniversity

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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