Physicist disappears on holiday without a mobile phone to escape inevitable rush of journalists seeking out prizewinner
The media spotlight has often been too harsh for Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh physicist, who disappeared off on holiday without a mobile phone this week to escape the inevitable rush of journalists that bears down on every winner of a Nobel prize.
The move was carefully calculated and profoundly successful. The Royal Swedish Academy made calls to the scientist’s phone but failed to make contact before – or after – announcing the winners of the 2013 prize in physics on Tuesday morning.
“He didn’t tell even me,” said Alan Walker, a close friend and fellow physicist at Edinburgh University, who was among a crowd of scientists who celebrated at the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics after watching the announcement from Stockholm online. “He’s not available, and good for him.”
Higgs, 84, shares the 8m Swedish kronor ( 775,000) prize – and no small measure of kudos – with the Belgian theorist, Fran ois Englert. Higgs had been favourite to win the award since researchers at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva declared last July that they had discovered the particle he predicted, the elusive Higgs boson.
The particle was the smoking gun that scientists had hunted for decades on both sides of the Atlantic in the hope of proving – or disproving – the theory drawn up by Higgs, Englert and several other physicists in 1964.
Written in pencil on a pad of paper, Higgs’s theory described an invisible field that is all around us – and even within us. The field gives mass to the basic constituents of atoms and, in doing so, ensures that the universe is not an ocean of massless particles hurtling around at the speed of light.
Peter Higgs is portrayed as the reclusive genius but that is as flawed as any stereotype. He can be hard to get hold of, but a busy life and an aversion to modern technology are mostly to blame for that. He has no computer, and no email. He answers the phone only when he knows who is calling. To arrange an interview some years back took a written letter to his apartment in Edinburgh’s New Town followed by a wait of several months, after which a reply arrived – handwritten in ink – in an envelope sporting a stamp of the Crab Nebula.
The traditional mode of communication continued even when larger projects were involved. In the later stages of writing Massive, a book about Higgs and the hunt for his boson, the fact-checking was done by sending every chapter to Higgs – along with a bag of ballpoint pens with which to make corrections. For several months later, at irregular intervals, the chapters came back, each accompanied by an extensive list of comments and amendments. Each package landed heavy on the doormat – thump – and caused a rush of anxiety that would have made Pavlov proud.
Edinburgh University, Higgs’s academic home since 1960, released a statement in which the physicist said he was “overwhelmed” to receive the award. “I hope this recognition of fundamental science will help raise awareness of the value of blue-sky research.”
Congratulations and praise poured in for a scientist whose humility and reputation for thinking for himself have made him one of the most revered of living physicists. “A huge cheer went up,” said Walker, of the gathering in Edinburgh. “I have tears in my eyes.”
Ken Peach, an Oxford physicist who used to work with Higgs in Edinburgh said: “I am delighted that Peter’s work has been recognised by the Nobel committee and I hope that this goes on to inspire young people to study physics and to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of what Peter imagined.”
David Cameron took to Twitter to offer his own congratulations.
Immediately after the big bang, the first particles that formed were entirely massless and zipped around the fledgling universe at the speed of light. But a trillionth of a second later, the field switched on and gave mass to scores of particles, including the quarks and electrons that make up atoms. Particles of light – photons – do not feel the field and remain massless.
Without the Higgs field, or something like it, the universe would look very different today. There would be no stars, planets, or life as we know it.
Higgs was at a conference in Sicily last June when he had a tip-off from John Ellis, a Cern veteran, that the discovery of the particle might be announced at a seminar planned for 4 July at the laboratory. Higgs was travelling with Alan Walker. On hearing the news, the two made arrangements to fly to Cern, a decision fraught with concerns over the cost of extending Higgs’s Saga travel insurance and their combined stocks of clean underpants.
The seminar, held on the morning of 4 July, revealed Cern had indeed discovered the Higgs boson. When the audience got to its feet – with thunderous applause – Higgs dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. Watching a video of the moment weeks later, he explained his reaction. “I was about to burst into tears,” he said. “I was knocked over by the wave of the reaction of the audience. Up until then I was holding back emotionally, but when the audience reacted I couldn’t hold back any more. That’s the only way I can explain it.” He was tearful not because Cern had finally proved his theory right, but for what the discovery meant to those around him.
This year was the earliest the prize could be awarded for the work, though it is exceptional for the honour to be given so swiftly.
Nobel prizes are often criticised for overlooking worthwhile winners and that was the case with the physics prize this year. The problem arises from the rule – regarded as outdated by many scientists – that prevents the prize from going to more than three people. The theory was first described by Fran ois Englert and Robert Brout, but Brout died in 2011. Higgs published second. But less than a month later, another team published the theory independently. Two US physicists, Gerry Guralnik and Dick Hagen, had worked with Tom Kibble at Imperial College, London, but delayed their paper to ensure it was complete.
“Faced with a choice between their rulebook and an even-handed judgment, the Swedes chose the rulebook,” Hagen told the Guardian.
Tom Kibble at Imperial College, said he was happy to see the Swedish academy recognise the work and offered congratulations to Higgs and Englert. “My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I … contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published. It is therefore no surprise that the Swedish academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the prize cannot be shared by more than three people,” he said.
Ben Allanach, a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University, said: “This is the recognition of a triumph for fundamental physics that will stay in the history books for millennia to come. I am thrilled about the prize, and Englert and Higgs both deserve it well.”
“I cannot over-stress the importance of the discovery. The mass mechanism that the Higgs boson is a signal for has had a huge impact on particle physics over the last 50 years. I think many of us felt that it had to be correct, although we were willing to let data dissuade us,” he said.
Ian Sample, the Guardian’s science correspondent, is the author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle