Imagine waiting half a century to be proved right. We don’t know what Peter Higgs, 84, makes of winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, because he has gone on holiday without his mobile phone to avoid the media ruckus around yesterday’s announcement, leaving behind a two-line statement congratulating everyone else involved in the discovery. Thoroughly refreshing.
Science can be as bitchy as any other sphere of academia, but physicists raced to pay tribute to him yesterday (and to François Englert of Brussels, who shares the prize). Higgs is self-deprecating to a fault, and liked for it, always emphasising the work of others he relied on to make his leap.
“He didn’t produce a great deal,” says one of his physicist colleagues at Edinburgh, Alan Walker, “but what he did produce is quite profound and is one of the keystones of what we now understand as the fundamental building blocks of nature.”
Higgs, who considered physics boring as a teenager, has been an anachronism for decades. He does not own a computer – a distraction for theorists like him – relying on pencil and paper, and gets his news on physics from reading the periodicals sent to his home. He made his breakthrough while walking in the Cairngorms.
Until 1964 we did not know how the elementary particles, of which we and everything around us are made, gained their mass. Or put another way, why matter (you, me, the table, the dog) does not disintegrate at the speed of light. His explanation of a Higgs boson particle was the smoking gun in physics, and when scientists at the large hadron collider – the biggest and most sophisticated machine ever built by humankind – revealed last year that they had finally discovered it, Higgs wept. He did not stay to celebrate with them, instead catching the easyJet flight home with his friend Walker, refusing Prosecco and asking instead for a can of London Pride.
His is a triumph of endurance and international kinship, of absolute belief in the capacity of man to understand the state into which he is born; a victory that will, in Higgs’ own words, “help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research”. Now, where is that map of the Cairngorms…Reuse content