My day with Professor Peter Higgs by Steph Hills

Yesterday, 4 July, I had the very great honour of spending the day with the man of the moment, Professor Peter Higgs at CERN. No, really.

Breakfast with Professor Higgs
Breakfast with Professor Higgs
(Credit: STFC)

On day two of my new job at CERN (I started here on Monday), I was asked if I would be willing to look after Professor Higgs on the day of the seminar to announce the latest results from the ATLAS and CMS experiments. Well, what would you say?

With the world’s media descending on CERN and excitement building , I worked closely with Professor Higgs, his friend and colleague from Edinburgh University, Alan Walker, and the Edinburgh University Press Office, to plan how we would manage the expected intense media interest. Based on our discussions, I prepared a detailed programme for the day.

Hundreds of CERN summer students had queued throughout the night for a seat in the seminar auditorium and anticipation was reaching fever pitch. Everyone wanted to be in the seminar in case the existence of the much discussed and long sought Higgs boson was announced. TV crews were already interviewing people in the queue and adding to the sense of excitement. But sticking to our plan, we began the morning with a quiet breakfast, in a private room, well away from the noise.

Journalists at the event
Journalists at the event
(Credit: STFC)

Just before the seminar began, Professor Higgs was escorted to the packed auditorium. The media went mad, surging forwards. There were TV cameramen jostling for the best position alongside journalists with audio recorders and microphones. It was astounding – this unassuming, very private, octogenarian was being treated like the latest teen pop sensation! Eventually, he was escorted to his seat by the Director General of CERN and the seminar began.

The atmosphere became calmer as people crowded around laptops to watch the seminar online. With inside knowledge of the historic announcement that was about to be made, I knew that we had two hours to plan how we would manage the short walk from the auditorium to the press conference. Like all the best celebrities, we drafted in Security. Lots of security.

The walk from the seminar to the press conference (which featured in many of the TV news reports) was unbelievable - even more TV cameras, journalists thrusting their recorders in front of Professor Higgs and screaming requests for a comment, and onlookers applauding. The noise and confusion were overwhelming. Working closely with the Edinburgh team, STFC’s UK Liaison Office and CERN’s own security guards, we formed a protective cordon around Professor Higgs and moved forward.

At the end of the press conference, with the help of our team of Security guards, we ran the media gauntlet one more time to get to the sanctuary of a quiet room, where Professor Higgs could gather his thoughts and relax over a private lunch.

With a security guard posted on the door to keep out well-meaning but unwanted visitors (mostly journalists wanting a comment), we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. I asked Professor Higgs whether he had ever imagined that there would be this kind of reaction to the discovery of the Higgs boson when he proposed its existence 48 years ago. The answer was definitely not, but with a smile.

The queue for the announcement of the Higgs Boson
The queue for the announcement of the Higgs Boson
(Credit: STFC)

A few of Professor Higgs’ old friends and colleagues dropped in to say hello over lunch and offer their congratulations, and then the select three journalists invited to interview him arrived.

With the interviews completed and a plane to catch back to Edinburgh, we gathered our security guards one last time to make sure that Professor Higgs and Alan Walker got to their car without interruption. There was just time for our team of ‘minders’ to have a few photos taken with the man of the moment – and then he was off.

Just to be at CERN on the day of the announcement of the existence of the Higgs boson and to be part of the event was an amazing experience. But to actually spend time with this charming genius was truly a one-off opportunity. I feel extremely honoured.

Steph Hills
STFC Communications and Innovation Officer @ CERN.

More LHC content including videos of some of the key physicists involved in the search for the Higgs Boson can be found here.

Last updated: 17 November 2015

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