Why Professor Peter Higgs is Massive: the man behind the particle

Professor Peter Higgs by Ken Currie 2008

This text is Copyright of the BBC. You can listen to this Profile documentary via the BBC website here.

3 years ago when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on at Cern in Geneva, few people had heard of Peter Higgs.  But this week scientists there think they may have glimpsed an elusive particle – the Higgs Boson, named after him. Professor Higgs is now famous round the world. But for him the experiment at the world’s largest atom smasher was about improving our understanding of how the universe works. This quiet octogenarian has waited patiently since 1964 for the world to catch up with his ideas.  This is an attempt to find out what he’s like from friends, colleagues and former students.

Peter Higgs was born in Newcastle in 1929. His father was a BBC sound engineer. When the family moved to Bristol he proved a brilliant student at Cotham Grammar School, winning many prizes, except, oddly enough  in physics. But one day, sitting through a dull assembly, a famous name on the honour board of ex-pupils caught his eye: P.A.M Dirac-one of the greatest quantum physicists who ever lived. Science writer Ian Sample explains:

Peter decided to find out who Paul Dirac was and started finding his ideas incredibly appealing. And Dirac was a very special kind of physicist – he was very good at just coming up with these incredibly beautiful equations that seemed to explain things from out of the blue, and that really appealed to Higgs. One thing that Peter was really good at was reading around the subject. He wouldn’t just go along to lessons and learn what the teachers had to say. So he did a lot of reading just off his own back. And he got into Dirac and he got into what the issues of physics were at the time, and this really fuelled his interest. It was really a kind of self-generated thing from curiosity, and that I think continued on throughout his life.

After school Higgs read physics at Kings College London and took the brand new theoretical option.  He got a first in 1950. Fellow student – and now professor – Michael Fisher remembers him excelling in the first ever exam in the subject:

As I recall he did the problem in quantum mechanics. So it was based on a paper that had been published recently in the scientific literature, you know just earlier that year, and by all accounts he did a better job on the problem that was set to him in his three hours, than the original author of the scientific paper had done, so it was a slightly scary precedent for me when I did the same exam a year later.

While work consumed him, his university friends, like Michael Fisher, helped him meet girls, notably during a road trip to Europe:

We found a very nice girl for Peter and he went and they joined together. And so you could say well that was somewhat of an association of convenience if you like.. Q: You set him up with someone so he wouldn’t be alone on the holiday?! Well roughly speaking, I forget exactly what the details were… that never worked out romantically particularly… so you could say from that point of view he was not as romantically inclined or romantically successful as some of us.

And it seems in the lab, as well as in love, Peter Higgs had a mind for theory, not practical experimental physics. Ian Sample explains:

He would tell me stories about how he would be trying to do a practical with some pretty simple lab kit, and they would have sort of supervisors around the lab. One of them just wandered over and just pulled a stopper out of a tube that Peter hadn’t seen or hadn’t realised was fundamental to the reason why he couldn’t get this thing to work, and the guy just came along and went ‘pop’ like that and it all worked, Peter hadn’t realised. And he was doing another experiment where he was hanging stuff off a wire and the whole thing just collapsed and he just decided that he was a nightmare when it came to experiments, it wasn’t his forte, that he was better off just using his brain.

Random forces were to push Higgs to Scotland. He applied for a lectureship at Kings College London, but his friend, Michael Fisher got the job. So Peter moved to Edinburgh University, where he was to make his career defining  breakthrough.

When he was 31 at Edinburgh, people were calling him a fuddy-duddy because he was working on something that was seen as uncool, it was a type of physics that a load of people had just thought was going nowhere. And he just decided “no, you don’t understand it as well as I do, and I think it’s got something and I think it’s worth pursuing.” And if he hadn’t pursued it – he wouldn’t have got his theory, it wouldn’t have happened, we would never have heard of him.

His theory about the existence of the elusive particle or boson came in 1964, in a moment of inspiration while walking in the Cairngorms. Peter Higgs wrote 2 papers about it. The second was initially rejected by the journal Physics Letters, which annoyed him. He later said they clearly didn’t understand him. But it was published not long after. By the early ’70s Higgs’ name was being associated  in academic papers and conferences with the theories that he and teams in Belgium and London had been researching independently. But the particle acquired HIS name, as Oxford Emeritus Professor Ken Peach recalls.:

There was some sort of meeting or conference and I noticed that you know nearly all of the talks mentioned the Higgs mechanism or the Higgs boson or the Higgs scalar, so that when I got back to Edinburgh and saw Peter in the coffee lounge with colleagues I said “Hey Peter, you’re famous!” and that is when I think Peter realised that his name was being associated with this phenomenon. Q: How did he react? [laughs] Oh with I think a diffident smile, I mean Peter is a very unassuming man and I think for many years after was somewhat embarrassed by all of the attention. I think he’s become over the years more comfortable with it.

Outside of academic circles, though, Higgs was not well known. For the next 20 years he continued writing and teaching. But there were difficulties in both his professional and his personal life. He had married, but split from his wife a few years after their two sons were born. And some friends feel Peter Higgs didn’t make the kind of impact that might be expected of a scientist of his calibre. Professor Michael Fisher:

You might say well if he wanted a stellar career, was he self-advertising enough? I wouldn’t say he was shy, I might say that he was a little too retiring perhaps for the good of his own career. So you might say that he would be much better known ahead of time if he’d had a little more in inclination.

Author Ian Sample says Peter Higgs was also challenged by the rapid changes in mathematical theory.

Towards the end of the 60s and in the 70s maths was coming along and people were coming along who understood the kinds of things that he actually came up with, they understood them really well, and there were new techniques coming along that he was really struggling to cope with, and he was falling behind. And so he was putting more and more time into trying to understand this work, and that was consuming for him I think. I think that made it even more difficult to have enough time for family and all the rest of it, and that seems to be the point where the two of them separated.

Higgs’ greatest passion was particle physics, but his political convictions were also passionately held. He was an active campaigner in both the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace, until they extended their opposition beyond nuclear weapons to all nuclear power. His lifelong friend Michael Fisher remembers how in 2004 Higgs refused to visit Israel to accept the Wolf prize for Physics.

Peter has been politically very active, he was essentially awared the Wolf Prize, but because he has strong misgivings about the nature of Israel, I think he declined to go… so he’s always had a strong conscience, there’s no doubt about that.

 By the early 90s, a strong campaign was underway to raise European government funding to build the Large Hadron Collider to prove Higgs’ theory about particle mass. In 1993, the then science minister William Waldegrave offered a prize to whoever could explain the Higgs Boson on a side of A4. The most famous entry [by David Miller of University College, London] personified its workings in the image of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entering a cocktail party of loyal Conservatives. Ken Peach had inspired the competition.

The idea is you have a party and there are a lot of people standing around and they’re broadly distributed evenly through the room.

And then there’s a russle and a noise, the PM Margaret Thatcher enters the room and starts to move towards the centre and everyone kind of crowds in around her. So she is a particle trying to move through this Higgs field, so the people in the party represent the Higgs field and as she comes in the Higgs field clusters around her and impedes her progress, so that slows her down from the speed of light and that’s equivalent to giving her mass.

The funding for the Large Hadron Collider was granted, and fame was catching up with the quiet professor. Artist Ken Currie was keen to find out the man behind the science when he was commissioned 3 years ago to paint Peter Higgs’portrait. He stood him in front of a mirror in his flat.

 In the mirror I’ve tried to kind of imagine this moment of the, as it were, the discovery of the Higgs boson – it’s almost like a kind of explosion of particle traces around his head, and it’s like this moment of the sublime really, you know it’s when the universe opens up its mysteries to us. 

I asked Peter Higgs how he went about his work, and I had kind of assumed that he was working in some huge cathedral-like laboratory with all these gigantic machines and everything, and he said to be that all needed was a pencil and paper. Which is why in the painting in his top pocket he has a pencil in his pocket, that’s all he needs to work it out, and I thought that was extraordinary because he was dealing with some of the largest questions imaginable about the nature of the universe and the nature of reality itself.

Peter Higgs’ love of scientific symmetry seems appropriately paralleled in a love of classical music. Ken Currie noticed his extensive collection of vinyl and art books was curated by a deeply ordered mind, in strict alphabetical order.

 He had all  sorts of books on painters which I noticed were arranged in alphabetical order which I was most impressed by.

Higgs’ flat in the New Town area of Edinburgh is, say visitors, like Ian Sample,  a bubble in the space time continuum, where the modern world does not intrude.

It’s nice, you go into his apartment in Edinburgh and it’s all very 70s retro stuff, there are all these lamps hanging over formica tables, and he’s got this amazing sound system but it’s a real sort of vintage job, and a load of vinyl and a lot of the colours in the flat are very 70s colours so it’s like going back in time a little bit.

Peter Higgs retired in 1996. He watches developments at Cern from a distance without a TV or a computer and rarely answering the phone; though keeping himself up to date with the latest physics journals. And he’s always made time to help students and researchers such as Ian Sample, whose book Massive was all about the hunt for the Higgs Particle.

I think he hates the idea of giving anything other than the correct answer. When I was writing the book I sent every chapter I wrote to him and he got back with a phenomenal number of corrections for which I’m hugely grateful. He gave me an enormous amount of time and he picked me up on everything, he didn’t hold back on any kind of criticism at all. Just knowing what he’s like I said look I will send you a whole packet of red biros because I know you’re going to need them to correct what I’ve written because some of it I may have misunderstood and I want you to help me. So I did – I bought a pack of red biros, I put it in there with every chapter that I sent up, and he used them, he used pretty much all of them I think.

And Professor Peter Higgs inspired younger generations of physicists, such as Dr Victoria Martin, who was in his last undergraduate class.

He was trying to teach us a subject called symmetries. You have to think in 4 spatial dimensions, which is obviously impossible for most humans. But as he was trying to describe the way that this worked, I actually got this vision of what this symmetry would look like in these four spatial dimensions. That’s the one one thing I was really inspired about his teaching this very complex subject, it’s a very useful symmetry that we use a lot in my research, so I still think of this to this day.

So what lies ahead? A Nobel prize, possibly. But fellow academics say he remains calm about world honours, judging by his reaction to the discovery at Cern earlier this week. Dr Martin, was with Higgs, when Edinburgh University staff gathered to watch the announcement on a screen in a lecture hall:

I was sitting just in front of him and he seemed to be quite pleasantly happy with the news that was coming out of CERN. I was probably more excited, as an experimentalist that’s been looking for this for a long time. He was kind of quietly pleased. He went and talked to one of my colleagues afterwards who came and reported that he wasn’t going to crack open a bottle of champagne to celebrate because it’s too early, these are just hints that the Higgs boson exists. On the other hand he wasn’t going to open his bottle of whisky and drown his sorrows

Ian Sample says:

 You never get a sense of real excitement or real ‘they must find it, please let them find it!’ from him, you don’t get that. He says things like “I have to hope my doctor keeps me alive long enough for them to find it”, “If they don’t find it I’ll be surprised.” He’s very self-effacing in this whole thing, I mean he still sometimes squirms when you just call it the Higgs Boson in his presence. He refers to it sometimes as “the boson that takes my name” or “the boson which bears my name”, you know, almost in an apologetic way, that he realises that his name has gone onto something that was really the result of many people’s work.

Nearly 50 years after the paper on what was to be the Higgs Boson particle was rejected, Professor Peach sees a happy symmetry for Peter Higgs – the passionate peace and green activist – in seeing the world’s largest laboratory prove what he knew was right all along:

You know one of things I would say about Peter is that his character is completely consistent and I think the science, the mathematics, the drive to understand how the universe works is also consistent with the desire to make sure that the universe itself is a fit and decent place to live.

Further reading

Professor Peter Higgs on the University of Edinburgh website

Peter Higgs explains how he came up with his theory of the Boson field and Higgs particle (Stockholm University lecture 2009 –transcript and video link by Tommy Ogden)

Margaret Thatcher explanation of the Higgs -Boson and Higgs field (1993 University College London)


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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