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He's had a scientific tiff with Stephen Hawking, dislikes the 'God particle' nickname for his Nobel prize winning theory and thinks fame is a bit of a nuisance. So who is Peter Higgs? Is Peter Higgs a Geordie? Technically, yes, by birth any way. He was born in Elswick, Newcastle in May 1929, the son of a BBC sound engineer.

Any chance that people might have rubbed shoulders with him at the Gallowgate end? Sadly not. His family soon moved down south and he was brought up in Bristol.

Presumably he did well at school? Funnily enough because of asthma for a period he was home taught. However, he made it to university and graduated with First Class Honours in Physics from King's College, University of London, in 1950.

And his big idea was..? The Higgs boson, the so-called God particle (cue cries of anguish at the name, including Prof Higgs, more of which later), which provides mass to the most basic building blocks of matter. Without it, the Standard Model theory that combines all the fundamental forces and particles of the universe would have fallen down. Higgs predicted the existence of the particle while working at Edinburgh University in 1964.

And how did the scientific fraternity react back then? The idea was initially met with suspicion and even ridicule in certain circles. His first paper was rejected by a journal, and some peers accused him and some colleagues of failing to grasp the basic principles of physics.

Didn't he have a bit of a to-do with Prof Stephen Hawking about it? He did indeed. Back in 2002, before his theory had been proved, Prof Higgs launched what appeared to be a deeply personal attack on Professor Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair and speaks through a voice synthesiser. Hawking had said the Higgs boson particle would never be found and put a bet, believed to be $100, on it. Higgs was quoted as saying: "It is very difficult to engage him (Hawking) in discussion, and so he has got away with pronouncements in a way that other people would not."

And when was his theory proved? It was in 2012 after two years of smashing protons together, CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

How did Prof Hawking react to the news? He was effusive in his praise of Prof Higgs though lamented the loss of his $100.

When did Prof Higgs get the Nobel prize? It was in 2013 he got the Nobel prize for physics which he shared with Francois Englert of the Free University of Brussels who had independently come up with a model explaining why particles are not massless and this model requires the existence of the Higgs boson.

So why is it called the God particle? The name was the invention of Leon Lederman, himself a great physicist, who used it as the title of a popular book in 1993. It was said he actually called it the 'Goddam particle' because it was so difficult to find. The 'God particle' tag has stuck because the Higgs boson isn't so catchy.

What did Prof Higgs made of the nickname? Scientists like Prof Higgs and clerics almost uniformly say they dislike it. Prof Higgs said he wished Lederman hadn't done it. "I'm an atheist, but I have an uneasy feeling that playing around with names like that could be unnecessarily offensive to people who are religious."

And how has Prof Higgs reacted to his celebrity? Asked how he feels about being stopped in the street now and asked for his autograph, he said: "It's a bit of a nuisance sometimes, frankly."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 12, 2016
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