PHYSICIST Peter Higgs rarely makes public appearances to discuss his revolutionary theory that has been labelled as the discovery of the “god particle” – known to scientists as the Higgs boson.
But a packed marquee on Friday night at this year’s Borders Book Festival heard the Edinburgh University professor go so far as to admit he had no idea what practical use would come from confirmation of the existence of his famed sub-atomic particle.
It is now half a century since Higgs wrote his ground-breaking paper that first postulated a theory of how things have mass – the last big hole in the standard model of physics.
That is the widely accepted view that everything started with a “big bang”.
Higgs has a reputation as a bit of a recluse, but certainly appeared to enjoy his appearance at the festival in the company of fellow theoretical physicist, Professor Frank Close of the University of Oxford.
Professor Close is the author of the latest book on the science that led to the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project in Switzerland.
The LHC comprises a 27km ring of magnets underneath the Swiss countryside, whirling protons around at an eighth of the speed of light, smashing them head on into each other.
It has allowed scientists to replicate the conditions – albeit in small volumes – that the real universe had about a trillionth of a second after the big bang.
That is the epoch when interesting things occurred, such as the possible emergence of the Higgs boson, which is crucial to the understanding of the origin of mass and is thought to have been the key to turning debris from the big bang into planets, stars and even life.
During the question-and-answer session, Professor Higgs had the audience laughing when he was asked what use mankind might make of his theory if confirmed.
“As far as the so-called Higgs boson is concerned, I haven’t the faintest idea of what the applications of that might be.
“Various relatively light and stable particles have therapeutic applications. I think the shortest lifetime of such particles before they turn into something else is a millionth or hundredth of a million of a second which you can ramp up by making it go faster.
“You can make a beam of such things and use it for medical purposes. But the lifetime of a Higgs Boson is a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second.
“There’s no-way I can imagine turning that into beams of particle for practical purposes, but maybe with somebody smarter than I am it is very likely.”
Close explained the current situation as regards finding the Higgs boson was “tantalising, but by no means certain”.
He explained: “It’s possible by the end of July we will have a more solid feeling – by the end of this year, all being well, we should know one way or other. But nature has a way of producing surprises.”
Speaking to TheSouthern after Professor Higgs’s session, Professor Close said he was enjoying his visit to Melrose, despite the rain.
“I was a student at St Andrews and I remember the weather as always being dry and good. But I think I had more rain today than I did in the whole of my four years at St Andrews.”