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
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!"
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Photo - EdinburghUniversity