The winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Physics waited 48 years for the confirmation of his theory, but in some ways he grew to dread the moment of discoveryby Frank Close / October 8, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Peter Higgs is used to delays. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist waited for sight of the eponymous “Higgs boson”—the “God particle” of media headlines—for 48 years. Then, on 4th July last year, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Geneva, announced the proof of this fundamental entity, but for which our material universe could not exist. But, the waiting was far from over for Higgs who had to endure another year of speculation of a different sort, before his achievement was finally capped on 8th October this year by the joint award of the Nobel Prize to himself and François Englert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In a final nail-biting twist, the announcement of his long-awaited victory was delayed by an hour as the committee struggled to reach the famously reclusive scientist. Unlike Samuel Becket’s Vladimir and Estragon, who waited for Godot in vain, Higgs has been successful.
I was watching on the Internet as the Nobel Committee explained that it had given the prize for the: “theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles…”. As tweets flooded my inbox it seemed that the whole of the physics world was watching too. All, but one it seems. Peter Higgs had gone on holiday to avoid the media storm. Without a phone. In a prepared statement released by the University of Edinburgh, Higgs expressed his humble thanks and said: “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
Everyone has heard of his boson, even if they don’t know what it is or why physicists give it such huge importance. For most of the last half century, Higgs has had a quiet life, away from the spotlight. Now, in the space of a few years, he has become a celebrity and public property.
How does he feel to have seen his theory proved correct after waiting so long? Did he ever doubt his theory, or worry that he was wrong as thousands of scientists and engineers devoted their professional careers to pursuit of the boson? Now that the eponymous particle is found, how does he react: with relief, or trepidation that his life will be irrevocably changed? What does he foresee as the future of physics? These are the questions that I have been discussing with him during the last four years, as he lived through the dramatic days that have moved a theory from speculation to lore, establishing for all time some of the most profound implications about the nature of the universe.