New Year Honours List: 'God Particle' Professor Higgs Receives Companion Of Honour

29/12/2012 00:15

Professor Peter Higgs, who gave his name to the "God particle", which scientists may have discovered this year, has been made a Companion of Honour.

The scientist may have spent most of his career in laboratories but he first hit upon his defining concept during a walk in the Cairngorms in 1964 when he started to consider the existence of a particle that gives matter mass.

He wrote two scientific papers on his theory and was eventually published in the Physical Review Letters journal, sparking a 40 year hunt for the Higgs boson.

higgs boson

Higgs evidence: This shows a collision with characteristics consistent with the existence of the God particle

In July the team from the European nuclear research facility at Cern in Geneva announced the detection of a particle that fitted the description of the elusive Higgs.

Scientists used the world's biggest atom smashing machine, the £2.6 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, to track down the missing particle, and achieved the definitive "five sigma" level of proof.

large hadron collider

The Higgs was found by the Large Hadron Collider

A sigma is a measure of how likely it is that a finding is down to chance. At five sigma, the likelihood of a statistical fluke is one in a million.

The finding topped the list of most important discoveries of 2012 according to the prestigious Science journal.

The 83-year-old retired professor said "it's very nice to be right sometimes" when the discovery was announced.

He added: "At the beginning I had no idea whether a discovery would be made in my lifetime because we knew so little at the beginning about where this particle might be in mass, and therefore how high an energy machine would have to go before it could be discovered.

"It's been a long wait but it might have been even longer, I might not have been still around."

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Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1929 he graduated with first class Honours in Physics from King's College, University of London, in 1950.

He completed a PhD over the next four years before starting a long association with the University of Edinburgh.

A spokesman for the university said: "The University of Edinburgh is delighted that Professor Higgs has been honoured. It is a well deserved testament to the impact of his work and the influence he is already having on the next generation of physicists."

He missed out on a Nobel prize this year but his contribution to physics has been recognised with eight honorary degrees and dozens of academic prizes since the 1980s. His award in the New Year Honours list comes after a year in which Professor Higgs said he started to be asked for his autograph in the street.

The Companion of Honour confers no title but only a select group are rewarded with it for achievements in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry, or religion. Stephen Hawking is a past recipient and Lord Coe is also to receive the honour in the new year.

Beyond personal honours for Professor Higgs, the University of Edinburgh is to open a research centre named after him. The Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics will bring together scientists from around the world to seek an even deeper understanding of how the universe works.

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