The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded on Tuesday to Peter Higgs of Britain and Francois Englert of Belgium for their pioneering work in particle physics. But Higgs is not the type to appreciate all the commotion.
In the summer of 2012 when it became apparent that the mysterious Higgs boson particle really exists, the media clamor over the stubby Scotsman with the thin gray hair increased: In the 1960s, physicist Peter Higgs had already predicted the existence of the particle, now named after him.
Then, scientists from the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva tracked the particle with their particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the 84-year-old Higgs was bombarded with countless interview requests. "Every time the LHC people reported a hint of the Higgs boson, the press descended on me and asked me for comments," Peter Higgs told the physicist Simon Hands in 2012. The media hype seems to be a nuisance for him.
Physicist through and through
Alan Walker, a colleague at the University of Edinburgh, has some advice for the journalists who want to talk to him, saying that Higgs "prefers those journalists who can follow the physics and report this accurately.”
Even though Peter Higgs has been an emeritus professor since 1996, he is still a physicist through and through. He always refused to speculate about future events. He terminated his Greenpeace membership when the organization started to campaign against genetic engineering. And when someone asks him about his role in the Higgs-Boson matter, he immediately launches into a scientific explanation. Bloomy descriptions for the layman are not his thing.
A typical statement is: “I am not going to comment on it until it is a five standard deviation result.” For non-scientists: Researchers should be 99.9999426697 per cent sure before Higgs will comment on it.
An essay that changed the world
In 1964 - Peter Higgs was lecturing at the Tait Institute in Edinburgh - he first made note of the idea that made him world-renowned. A previously undiscovered particle should exist - the reason why matter has mass. It was something physicists had failed to explain satisfactorily. “"I thought it was obvious, anyway," he said at a press conference.
The scientific essay on his world changing theory was only one page long. “I didn't know what the impact was going to be, I just felt that this was the best thing I had ever done,” he later said. “I was very annoyed when the first version of my second paper was rejected.”
The magazine “Physics Letters” did not want to publish his essay. Maybe his theory was too revolutionary. Even today, physics journals do not like this very much. But Peter Higgs was persistent. He added a conclusion and successfully published his essay in the rival US magazine “Physical Review Letters”. And history took its course.
Not the youngest
Now, an oil painting of him hangs at the University of Edinburgh and an acrylic painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. But time has left its marks on him. Higgs sometimes has difficulty talking. He stammers, his hearing is bad and his hands are often shaky.
While his colleagues often use modern and colorful PowerPoint presentations, Higgs, in his lectures about his life work, sticks to the tried-and-tested overhead projector and a pile of handwritten notes.
Failures - private and professional
He did not only miss out on the computer age, he also had little sympathy for mathematically-oriented particle physics. He was not the one to advance his ideas - it was other researchers. The zenith of his scientific career ended just a few years after his earth-shattering idea was published.
The divorce from his wife Jody in 1972 contributed to that. Higgs was devastated. It is said that she felt neglected because Higgs was too determined in his physics.
Nevertheless: “Peter is very much a family man,” said Alan Walker in a speech in 2010. He always took a lot of time for his two sons, and Higgs now has two grandchildren.
He hates the God particle
When a journalist asked him what kind of technological progress can be expected from the his particle, Higgs honestly answered: “I have no idea. I don't know how you apply that to anything useful." For a medical application, to combat tumors, for example, it is far too short-lived, he said.
He also hates the term God particle, as the media commonly calls the Higgs boson particle. He thinks it is embarrassing. He has never used the term and never would. "I'm not a believer in God, but I thought his rather flippant use of the term might be offensive to some people," he said.
'It's nice to be right'
What did Peter Higgs say when the scientists from CERN actually found the Higgs boson particle? “I am quite surprised that it happened during my lifetime. It is nice to be right about something sometimes."
As it must be for a scientist, he points out that there are still many mysteries to solve. There are still many interesting things to measure around the Higgs particle. “The LHC has a lot more do to. I am looking forward to hear more about it.”