Tejinder Virdee (right) with wife Vatsala
London, Dec. 13: Physics is a much more competitive business than most people might think, so it was “a big deal” for Tejinder Virdee to be mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Stephen Hawking.
They have both won awards from the same foundation, Fundamental Physics Prize, launched by Russian tech-investor Yuri Milner in July this year to advance knowledge of the universe. India’s Ashoke Sen was among nine scientists to receive the inaugural award of $3 million (Rs 16.33 crore) each — the most lucrative in the history of science and often called the “Russian Nobel”.
Hawking gets to keep his prize all to himself but Virdee, professor of physics at Imperial College London who has been based in Geneva for over 20 years, has to share his $3 million with six other scientists.
The magnificent seven “led the effort to discover a Higgs-like particle at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider” (LHC), the citation said.
Virdee developed the experiment, known as CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), which has made it possible for the Higgs boson to be identified in the LHC, the 27km ring located 100 metres below the Swiss and French borders.
Inside the tunnel, protons are smashed at high speeds to recreate conditions in the universe as it was being born a nanosecond after the “Big Bang” 13.7 billion years ago.
The CMS is a gigantic “3D 100 Mpix digital camera” that weighs 14,000 tonnes and takes 40 million photographs per second.
Virdee’s wife Vatsala said: “The (joint) billing is with the famous Stephen Hawking, so we are very happy about this. Tejinder took Stephen down to the CMS experiment some years ago and he really enjoyed it.”
Hawking, 70, the celebrated author of A Brief History of Time, is recognised “for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe”.
The former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, who is severely disabled with motor neurone disease, said he planned to spend his windfall on his daughter’s autistic son and on “maybe” buying a holiday home.
Virdee played a critical role in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the fundamental particle popularly known as the “God particle” which scientists believe holds the key to a deeper understanding of how the universe came into being.
In a statement, Virdee said that in conceiving, building and operating the CMS experiment, the collaboration has advanced science.
The seven winners were named with the experiments they had worked on: Peter Jenni, Fabiola Gianotti (Atlas); Michel Della Negra, Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela (CMS) and Lyn Evans (LHC).
Virdee said: “The prize not only celebrates fundamental science but also recognises the audacious undertaking of the many scientists, engineers and technicians from around the world who, over many years, came together to build a powerful detector, one that will still have the potential to produce remarkable physics for years to come.”
He added: “For me, it is an honour and privilege to be associated with this advance. Bravo to the CMS collaboration for their dedication to make the experiment one of the most beautiful scientific instruments ever.”
Virdee told The Telegraph that scientists are reasonably confident they have found the Higgs boson but want to carry out further experiments before the preliminary results are confirmed.
He was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in April this year. His colleagues in Geneva said that Fellows of the Royal Society are chosen by their peers from “the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth”.
Only 8,000 people have been elected Fellows since the Royal Society was founded in 1660. “Jim” (as Virdee’s colleagues call him) will be “standing on ye sholders of giants” with such previous Fellows as Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Charles Darwin, Sir Alexander Fleming, Dorothy Hodgkin, Hawking, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Sir J.J. Thompson, William Thomson (Baron Kelvin) and Sir Christopher Wren.
Virdee is now in the top tier of the world’s physicists and possibly in line for a Nobel. In 2009, for his “distinguished research in particle physics”, he was awarded the Chadwick medal by the Institute of Physics.
Virdee describes his identity thus: “I am a British Indian. I am British by nationality and Indian by birth and living in Geneva. I think it is very much like the experiment. The CMS has 3,000 people from 30 countries. I started this experiment in 1989-90 with 20 people. It is now very much like the United Nations of science.”
The scientist, whose family are Sikh, added: “I was born in Nyeri, a town on the foothills of Mount Kenya. I am living on the foothills of the Alps now.”
Virdee’s two brothers and a sister and their parents settled in Birmingham in 1967 when he was 15. He attended the King’s Norton Boys Grammar School locally where “a wonderful physics teacher —Howard Stockley, now in his eighties — inspired me to explore further physics”.
He continued: “I went on to study just that at Queen Mary, London. Then, in 1974, I started my doctorate in particle physics at Imperial College London.... I would also frequently visit Geneva to work at the Centre for European Nuclear Research (CERN).”
Virdee and Vatsala, who is Gujarati, have a daughter, Natisha, a primary school teacher, and a son, Jasmeer, who is in his third year at Trinity College, Oxford, studying astrophysics.
Describing Virdee as “one of the founding members of the CMS experiment”, Imperial College said: “Professor Virdee has played a major role in all the phases including its design, the R&D and detector prototyping (inventing some of the techniques used), its construction, installation, commissioning, and data analysis. He was also the CMS Leader for a number of years.”
The $27 million Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation will award $3 million every year to researchers in fundamental physics, who are then invited to select recipients of future prizes.