'God Particle' Scientist Vindicated 50 Years Later

Jul 4, 2012
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And now to a little more about that man, the Higgs behind the Higgs boson - Peter Higgs. As we just heard, Higgs and his team proposed the existence of the so-called "God particle" back in the 1960s. I'm joined now by Victoria Martin, who is a lecturer in physics and astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. She has studied with Peter Higgs and worked with him at CERN. Welcome to the program.

VICTORIA MARTIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: I gather you spoke with Peter Higgs today. What did he tell you?

MARTIN: I had a very brief phone conversation with him and he actually said it's been quite a tiring day with all the media interest, but also a very exciting day to finally see the results.

SIEGEL: And do you think that he actually had expected to see his theory proven or supported?

MARTIN: I think he's probably always been a bit kind of quietly confident that it was the correct theory, but, you know, it had to be experimentally tested so he was waiting until we managed to be able to test the theory that he came up with and find the Higgs boson. So I think - I'm sure he's very happy today that we've finally done that.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about this particle's nickname, the "God particle." What did Higgs, who I've read is an atheist, think about the nickname the "God particle"?

MARTIN: I'm sure - I actually haven't ever asked him this directly, but I'm sure he doesn't like it. Almost all particle physicists detest that name. It was actually Leon Lederman, who's a Nobel laureate, that came up with it. But he was trying to call it "that goddamn particle," and that wasn't allowed by the publishers so it became the "God particle."

So the name stuck and I think it's fine because then people know what we're talking about. But secretly, all of us hate the name, the "God particle."

SIEGEL: Well, back to Peter Higgs. Tell us about what he was like to work with.

MARTIN: I first met him when I was an undergraduate student doing my bachelor's degree at the University of Edinburgh and he was one of my lecturers. And I remember him as being quite a tough lecturer, kind of no-nonsense lecturer, but he also was quite inspiring as a lecturer. I do remember one particular moment when he was talking about symmetries where I finally, for that one instant, understood the very fundamental symmetry in our universe.

I had this lovely picture in my head, which I still carry around to this day because it's a symmetry we use a lot in particle physics.

SIEGEL: And I suppose this comes with the territory of being a theoretical physicist, but how did he handle the idea of having this grand theoretical proposition out there for decades before there was any experimental proof of it?

MARTIN: Historically, when Peter came up with the theory, everyone liked it. But it wasn't actually needed to explain the rest of particle physics. That came out a bit later when we started to think about the patterns of the different subatomic particles that we found. And people realized that they needed to use the thing we call now the Higgs mechanism to explain the reason why these particles have a mass, why they have a substance.

And I'm sure he's been - in following, you know, our experimentalists looking for the Higgs boson all this time, but he, you know, he's never said, please find it. He's not a grandstanding man that would really want us to do anything but the proper scientific method that we actually employed to discover this.

SIEGEL: Well, was he constantly surrounded, perhaps unbeknownst to him, by people whispering, that's the Higgs, that's the Higgs, Higgs boson, that's him over there?

MARTIN: Yes, yes. So he retired when I graduated back in 1996, but he does still come into the department and often, I call them science groupies, but you see some younger scientists say, oh, look, there's Professor Higgs and they do want to talk to him. Occasionally, he's asked for his autograph and for photograph and for interviews and things. I think he finds this slightly bemusing that he's almost a minor science celebrity where he's actually a very modest man in reality.

SIEGEL: Victoria Martin, thank you very much for talking with us.

MARTIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Victoria Martin, a lecturer in physics and astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. We were speaking of Peter Higgs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.