My recent reading has included several articles on the scientist Peter Higgs. He is the British theoretical physicist and professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. Born in 1929 in Newcastle, England (of Scottish/English parentage), Dr Higgs gave his name to the Higgs boson particle – an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle.
Higgs’ immersion in particle physics research enabled him to identify the mechanism by which most building blocks in the universe have mass. Specifically, he was responsible for identifying the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, the so-called “God particle”. His research, first published in 1964, has resulted in him being awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the mass of subatomic particles.
Peter Higgs has been described as “an unworldly and donnish academic” whose immersion in his scientific research has resulted in a somewhat cloistered and ivory tower existence. He does not own a mobile telephone or a television and, not only has he never sent an email, he has also only been using a computer for the last four years – subscribing to the view that “the more gadgets we have, the less we can think”.
He is now in the 84th year of life. His colleagues apparently view him as being “a bit eccentric; maybe cranky”, and he seems to prefer researching particle physics science than writing about it.
Peter Higgs is unusual in other ways also. He has strong political views that are pro-Labour (he has been a life-long supporter of Labour politics) and his trade union activities frequently got in the way of his work. He was also known for his involvement with student protests in the tumultuous 1960’s and, in his younger student days, he was active in CND.
Higgs was a student dissenter who clearly had little regard for professors whose background was in the British public school tradition (he himself attended Cotham School, Kings College, London). For this reason, apart from others, Peter Higgs has not always seen eye-to-eye with some of his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh and, over the years, the latter had serious reservations about Higgs’ academic ability and application – as both a student and a member of staff.
With the foregoing background and beliefs, it is not surprising to learn that Peter Higgs has refused a knighthood. He said: “I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.” Quite early in his career, he turned down the opportunity of an Ivy League career in a selection of universities in the United States of America. He and his wife (an American whom Higgs met through CND), could not stand the country’s politics.
Peter Higgs seems to have few regrets about his life. However, one of them would be that the particle he first identified in 1964 has since become popularly known as the “God particle”.
He does not like this nickname, but not because he does not want to offend religious sensibilities, quite the opposite. Peter Higgs is not a religious believer and he feels that “some people get confused between the science and the theology. They claim that what happened at Cern (the location near Geneva, Switzerland, of the Large Hadron Collider that was used in the experiments to discover the “God particle”) proves the existence of God”.
Naturally, Higgs disagrees with this claim and has further stated that the ill-advised nickname, the “God particle”, “reinforces confused thinking in the heads of people who are already thinking in a confused way”. Interestingly, he does not bother to try and change the minds of those who think in this way and, tellingly, he asks: “If they believe that story about creation in seven days, are they being intelligent?”
Dr Peter Higgs will shortly receive his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden. The prize is well deserved and his story, a charming tale, is worth retelling and being more widely known.