As the dust settles following the announcement of the winners of the 2013 Nobel prize for physics, it is worth pausing for a moment to contemplate the man who – reluctantly – gave his name to a boson.
On 8 October 2013, at around 10am GMT, the Nobel committee concluded its deliberations, identified this year’s laureates, and made a few phone calls. In an apartment in Edinburgh a telephone rang, and rang…
Peter Higgs was in a little pub in Leith, a beautiful area to the north of Edinburgh, enjoying a nice bowl of soup, some fish and a pint. It was only when he returned to Edinburgh that an old neighbour congratulated him on the ‘good news’. He replied, “oh, what news?”. On being informed that he had been awarded science’s highest honour, the 84 year-old Emeritus professor resignedly trudged back to his apartment – and its ringing telephone.
Higgs was born in Newcastle in 1925, the son of an Englishman and Scotswoman. He was home-schooled in his early years then, when his family relocated to Bristol, he attended Cotham Grammar School where he was a prize-winning pupil – but not in physics. It was only when he read the works of Paul Dirac, an old boy of his school, that physics really captured his imagination. Higgs went on to be awarded first class honours in undergraduate physics at Kings College London before completing a Masters and PhD in molecular physics. In 1960 he took up a permanent lecture post in Edinburgh.
The Highland air clearly agreed with Higgs, for it was during his walks in Scotland’s rugged mountain ranges that he is said to have conceived a theory of how certain fundamental particles acquire mass. In October 1964 he submitted two papers to the journal Physics Letters, the second of which related to this theory and what is now known as the Higgs field. The first paper was published but the second was rejected and stated to have “no obvious relevance to physics”. On reviewing the paper, Yoichiro Nambu, a respected physicist of the time, suggested Higgs may like to explain the physical implications of his theory. So Higgs inserted a paragraph explaining that the excitation of the Higgs field would yield a particle, which would come to be known as the Higgs boson. Higgs resubmitted the amended paper to rival journal Physical Review Letters, which published it later in 1964.
Around the same time other theorists were working on similar ideas. Belgium’s Robert Brout and Francois Englert published a paper prior to Higgs in 1964 and, although their paper didn’t explicitly refer to the boson, it was the first to propose the mechanism now known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism. Another trio of scientists, Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen, also helped to refine the theory behind this mechanism, which is now a keystone of the Standard Model.
Higgs went on to enjoy a successful career in physics, be appointed to various distinguished posts, and win many awards. It was however his work on the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism which remains his most notable contribution to the field.
On attending a conference in Sicily in early July 2012, Higgs was tipped off by CERN veteran John Ellis that the observation of the Higgs boson may be announced at a seminar planned for the 4th July at CERN, Geneva. Once he and his travel companion, Alan Walker, were satisfied they had sufficient clean underpants between them to extend their trip, they changed their flights. The observation of the Higgs boson was indeed announced and both Higgs and Englert, who had never previously met, were present. Higgs shed a tear of joy following the announcement and on being asked why he was so moved, he stated that it was people’s reaction to the news and how much it meant to them that so profoundly affected him. On the plane back to Edinburgh he celebrated with a bottle of London pride – a working-man’s ale.
Back to 2013, and Higgs must endure the media storm which inevitably follows a Nobel laureate to be. He will patiently give interviews and press conferences but one strongly suspects that he would prefer to be back in Leith having a pint. What I so admire about Higgs, other than his obvious scientific brilliance, is what an understated and humble man he is. Where some seem to ravenously crave a Nobel, one suspects Higgs would prefer not to have to bother with the accompanying kerfuffle. Indeed Higgs rejected a knighthood as he did not want “that sort of title”. He has been at pains to emphasise the contributions of the five other original authors of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, and the thousands of other scientists at CERN and beyond involved with the observation of the Higgs boson. He belittles his contribution to science as compared to the likes of Einstein as it only took “two or three weeks in 1964” to concoct. And to top it all he is just about the only person who refers to the Higgs boson as the ‘scalar boson’. In today’s highly competitive, often cut-throat, social media driven society, his dignified, gentle and modest character is wonderfully refreshing.
Higgs plans to retire from his busy lecture schedule when he hits the ripe age of 85. He leaves behind a world of science full of uncertainty. The Higgs boson looks awfully like the Standard Model Higgs boson but is it a supersymmetrical Higgs boson? Are there other types of Higgs boson waiting to be discovered when the Large Hadron Collider is switched back on in 2015? And what about dark matter and dark energy – what on Earth are they all about?
One thing is certain however – they don’t make ’em like Peter Higgs anymore.