Higgs and his dark matter principal

By Dr Joe Milton the Australian Science Media Centre

Professor Peter Higgs, the British theoretical physicist who proposed the existence of the Higgs boson – dubbed the ‘God particle’ by the press – died this week aged 94.

The existence of the ‘Higgs boson” was confirmed by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, and Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in conjunction with Belgian physicist François Englert for his work in 2013.

The Higgs boson is the fundamental particle associated with the Higgs field, a field that gives mass to other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks.

A particle’s mass determines how much it resists changing its speed or position when it encounters a force. Not all fundamental particles have mass. The photon, which is the particle of light and carries the electromagnetic force, has no mass at all.

Before Higgs’ work in the 1960s, the accepted laws of physics seemed to imply that the matter in our universe should have no mass at all, which was obviously incorrect.

“The special features of the Higgs boson solved that problem in an elegant way that suddenly made the theory agree with the obvious fact that particles have mass,” Monash University particle physicist Professor Ulrik Egede told the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC).

But Higgs would have to wait decades to see his theory validated.

“It took almost 50 years – and around 13,000 other scientists and engineers – to build the experiments (ATLAS and CMS) that enabled the Higgs boson to be discovered in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider,” says Associate Professor Suzie Sheehy from The University of Melbourne.

What do we know about the Higgs boson

Professor Elisabetta Barberio, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics, was part of the team at the Large Hadron Collider that found the Higgs boson in 2012. She said the experience was “extraordinary”, and “a significant milestone in scientific history”.

Elisabetta Barberio (ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics.)

Professor Raymond Volkas, also from The University of Melbourne, told AusSMC Higgs “made one of the most important contributions ever to our understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe”.

But despite his towering achievements, Higgs was “famously modest”, says Volkas.

“He gave due credit to other physicists who also discovered the gist of what we call the Higgs mechanism. He explained sometimes abstruse physics with admirable lucidity, overcoming his natural shyness when being interviewed,” he says.

And the Higgs boson is not just of esoteric interest to those with a penchant for particle physics, says Sheehy.

“This field of curiosity-driven research has had enormous practical influence in our lives: particle physics has produced unimaginable spin-offs, from the invention of the World Wide Web to better cancer treatment technologies,” she said.

Higgs reportedly died “peacefully at home following a short illness” on Monday, according to The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Higgs was an Emeritus Professor.

You can read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction here.

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