Higgs field: A biography of Professor Tom Kibble and his contribution to physics research

(Credit: Imperial College London)

An eminent theoretical physicist, Emeritus Professor Tom Kibble CBE FRS is best known for his work in the 1960s that led to the concept of a mass-giving particle now known as the Higgs boson, which proved a key feature of the standard model of particle physics.

Professor Kibble has been based at Imperial College London since 1959, working in the research group founded by Professor Abdus Salam who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for developing a 'unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions'.

Born in 1932 in Madras, India, Thomas Walter Bannerman (Tom) Kibble attended school in Edinburgh and graduated from the University of Edinburgh (MA 1955, BSc 1956, PhD 1958), he joined the Department of Physics at Imperial as a Nato Fellow in 1959.

In 1964 he wrote a research paper in collaboration with two American scientists - National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow Gerald Guralnik, and Richard Hagen from the University of Rochester, New York - that was one of three describing a new theory of how certain particles can acquire mass, which has come to be known as the 'Higgs mechanism'.

This paper, along with a follow up in 1967 with Professor Kibble as the sole author, was instrumental in leading to the work for which Glashow, Salam and Weinberg were awarded their Nobel Prize.

Kibble's 1967 contribution showed how the mechanism can be extended to explain how the elementary particles we now call the W and Z bosons have mass whereas photons, which make up light, have no mass.

These papers are among a number of theoretical works that shaped particle physics through the 20th century and led to the development of the biggest experiment in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. Among other things, this ambitious experiment aimed to discover evidence for the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is believed to convey mass to all the fundamental particles that form the building blocks of the universe. Without evidence of its existence, physicists could not fully underpin all the currently held laws that explain the interactions between the Universe's elementary particles.

Early results from CERN in July 2012 brought to a close a series of experiments designed to verify its existence.

Speaking at special seminars held concurrently at CERN, the home of the LHC in Geneva, the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Melbourne, and a press conference in London, physicists working on the Atlas and the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) announced they had discovered a new particle.

Following this, in March 2013, the scientists confirmed there was still nothing that conflicted with evidence of the particle being a Higgs boson. The new particle had a large mass, around 125 times the mass of the proton particle that is used as a standard unit of measure of mass for all particles.

Further experimentation will get underway at the LHC in 2015 in order to understand all its physical properties.

(Credit: Imperial College London)

Over the course of his career Professor Kibble has made many other important contributions to theoretical physics, including how defects such as one-dimensional 'cosmic strings' might have formed in the early universe. Although these strings have not yet been observed by physicists, similar effects have been recreated in laboratories, where their formation is explained by an effect known as 'Kibble-Zurek scaling', named after Professor Kibble and Wojciech Zurek.

In 1970 Kibble became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial, and held the position of Head of the Department of Physics from 1983 to 1991.

In 1980, aged just 48, Kibble was admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, a prestigious honour bestowed by the UK's national scientific academy, where he would later serve as Vice-President from 1988-89. In 1998 he received the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) medal in the Queen's Birthday Honours, in recognition of his services to Physics.

In June 2008 Professor Kibble's seminal research paper was selected as one of the most important papers of the last 50 years by the leading journal Physical Review Letters.

In 2009 Professor Kibble was jointly awarded the 2010 J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics – one of the most prestigious international prizes in physics - along with the five other leading scientists credited with the Higgs theory.

Professor Kibble was granted Fellowship of Imperial College at a ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall in 2009. In 2012 the Royal Society awarded Professor Kibble the Royal Medal, one of its premier awards that are only awarded to three scientists each year.

Professor Kibble, who is very much still active at Imperial, recently celebrated his 80th birthday, which was marked by the College on 13 March 2013 with a symposium day, then an evening public lecture with Professor Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin.

During 2013, Professor Kibble became one of four new honorary fellows of the Institute of Physics, and received the Dirac Medal - named after Paul Dirac, 'one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century' - which is given to scientists who have made significant contributions to theoretical physics.

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