Retired physicist Peter Higgs was walking home from a lunch in Edinburgh’s port area a few hours after winning the Nobel Prize when a former neighbor stopped her car to congratulate him on the news.
“I said ‘what news?’” Higgs told a press conference today at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked from 1960 until 1996. “I’m relieved it’s all over.”
Higgs, 84, and Francois Englert, 80, a retired professor at the Free University of Brussels, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics this week for describing the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that may explain where mass comes from and advances the understanding of how the world is constructed.
It took physicists almost five decades to find the boson, while journalists needed three days to catch sight of Higgs. Today was the first time the physicist has spoken publicly since sharing the 8 million-krona ($1.25 million) prize on Oct. 8. The Nobel committee in Stockholm had said it hadn’t been able to reach him initially as he hid from media attention.
Higgs was enjoying soup and sea trout and a range of beers at an eatery in Leith, the port in the Scottish capital. He had intended to escape further, to the Highlands, on the day the Nobel committee was deliberating the physics prize.
“I conveniently got out of the way while the telephone messages mounted up,” said Higgs.
The particle is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the Standard Model, a theory explaining how the universe is built. Its existence helps scientists understand how galaxies hold together.
The boson is named after Higgs, one of six scientists who devised a working theory of how elemental particles achieve mass in a three-month period in 1964. Englert had been the first to publish the theory a month earlier, along with Robert Brout, a Belgian colleague who died two years ago.
Higgs, whose first academic interest was in chemistry and mathematics when at school in the English city of Bristol during World War II, said his contribution to the theory ceased in 1967 as the baton was passed to other scientists.
Researchers at CERN, the European center for nuclear research near Geneva, said last year they had observed a particle that may be the boson after analyzing results from its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Higgs, speaking at the time in Edinburgh, said he didn’t expect the theoretical particle to be found in his lifetime.
“It was a long time coming,” said Higgs, who was first told he might win a Nobel Prize in 1980. “After July last year, it seemed to be just a question of what year.”