On October 8, it was announced that this year’s Nobel Prize for physics would go to two scientists for work they conducted in the 1960s. Many researchers based at universities in British Columbia played important roles in the long story that led to that selection.
In a telephone interview, Robert McPherson, an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria, told the Straight that Peter Higgs and Francois Englert’s contributions were only recognized after so many years because that’s how long it took to verify that their theories are accurate.
“They wrote this whole thing about how maybe there is this really exotic new coupling, which today we call the Higgs field,” McPherson said. “It’s really a profound thing, how pure energy can couple to something—this Higgs field—and gain mass and become matter. This is really how energy transforms into matter, which is a very profound concept. And this is the work they were doing in 1964.”
McPherson was one of thousands of scientists who for decades worked to prove (or disprove) the men’s theory, which rested on the existence of a particle that was eventually named the Higgs boson. McPherson’s also the Canadian spokesperson for ATLAS, one of two detectors at the Large Hadron Collider that found verifiable evidence of the Higgs boson (those findings were officially announced in March 2013).
The existence of the Higgs helps explain why the universe’s most fundamental building blocks have mass. Without the Higgs, the mathematics of the Standard Model of particle physics falls apart. That made proving (or disproving) the particle’s existence a scientific holy grail, hence its nickname, the “God particle”.
In 2008, the Straight spoke with McPherson for a cover story that explored Canadian scientists’ contributions to this massive body of research. That article detailed how those effort involved colliding beams of protons travelling at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light around a 27-kilometre circuit buried deep beneath the border of France and Switzerland.
Speaking today (October 8), McPherson commented on a remark made by Peter Higgs, one of the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize (the other is Francois Englert).
“I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research,” Higgs told BBC News via a prepared statement.
McPherson used a different term. He called the direction described by Higgs “curiosity”.
“It’s understanding the nature of matter, how matter came into the universe, and the nature of the universe itself,” McPherson explained. “I think human beings are pre-programmed to try and understand the world around us; I think he’s saying that, that there’s value in curiosity.”