Having everything named after you does not bring renown. The Higgs boson, the Higgs field, the Higgs mechanism, the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics, the Higgs medal.
But who was that guy? When did he die?
The particle some silly people refer to as the ‘God particle’, to the ire of physicists and creationists, for once in happy agreement, has created a tricky little conundrum for prize committees. Such a vast consortium of intelligence convened at the Large Hadron Collider (aka the LHC, if you’re a rapper) in efforts to prove its existence that the Nobel prize for physics next year may have to go to Europe, or planet Earth.
And why should planet Earth not get the prize? The EU won the Nobel peace prize in 2012. Physics, Peace … what’s the difference? Short of that I say Peter God … I mean Peter Higgs, the very predictor himself deserves it. It is His particle, I mean his.
Peter Higgs, very much alive since 1929 despite dodging German bombs as a child in Bristol, is now almost as famous as the boson that has since hijacked his name.
What is all the fuss about? Why is a 1960s existential soothsayer worthy of being a Hero of Science?
Peter Peter the Particle Foreseer has won every other physics prize, including the Royal Society’s Hugh’s medal and another unpronounceable trinket from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which being Swedish might as well be a dry run for the Nobel.
For his influence on the field of physics, his massive medal tally that seems only to be short a Nobel or two and an Olympic podium finish, and also because of the increasing ubiquity of his name, Peter Higgs is our Hero of Science for February.
But his worth extends beyond the mere fact that his 1960s prediction is now proven right. Well actually … according to the experts we still can’t even say that.
The media hype around CERNs monumental discovery of a new boson, which has a mass around 125 GeV/c2, appears ignorant of the fact that this mystery particle is yet to be experimentally proven to be the Higgs boson. Implicit in this point is that they are thus yet to prove that the Higgs boson exists at all. This new particle, despite similar mass to the predicted Higgs boson, might yet prove to be an impostor boson. (Edit: on 14/03/13 CERN announced that it is in fact a Higgs boson. Good for you Peter.)
Some may wonder why a particle would want to impersonate Higgs boring spinless boson. There are far more exciting bosons out there. Gluons, straight out of an 80s rave party have eight colours. The Higgs Boson?
Ah, like, only zero. Hello-o
Who would you rather impersonate? Mr. Gay Pride Gluon spinning about to the music, or that tasteless grey boson sulking in the corner mumbling nobody cares about me, I might as well not exist, I wish I were a flavoursome quark.
Most physicists, despite not wanting to jump on the Higgs media band wagon, will tell you that if somebody looks like a bozo and acts like a bozo most likely they are a clown.
But enough bosons. Peter’s accelerated career, on a collision course with brilliance no matter how subterranean, did not begin with a particle, but rather a platonic bro-crush on the famous quantum mechanic Paul Dirac.
Dirac had attended Higgs’ own Grammar school and was a prominent role model for the students. Maybe Higgs borrowed his aptitude for prediction from Dirac as among other things that Nobel laureate predicted the existence of antimatter.
During those formative years in the first half of the twentieth century there were still some very simple yet perplexing questions that pervaded the disciplines of physics and mathematics, such as what is mass?
In fact, ever since the 17th century when Newton described the fancy new concept of mass in his Principia Mathematica physicists and mathematicians had failed to actually understand the nature of mass.
Why do objects have weight?
Why is it that a donut has mass, yet the subatomic building blocks of that donut can appear to have as much mass as the donut hole (at least in a vacuum)? Pre-Higgs, tweed wearing pipe smokers were confounded by the problem that as you mathematically split the atom the constituent particles seem to lose their mass. Mass appeared to be more than the sum of its parts. What was missing?
In the face of discrepancy, and like most things incomprehensible to physicists, previous generations of theorists relied on the beguiling power of paradox to sponsor our belief in their formulas.
Is paradox in mathematics not just a little like faith in religion?
So, how do you know of what you speak? I have faith. I have paradox.
Cloistered halls of cobweb cracked physics departments across the globe are usually permeated by whispers like these:
I think I’ve cracked the Theory of Everything! (ToE)
The only problem is … there has to be ten dimensions for it to work.
Ten? Well that’s a bit confusing. Is it possible that maybe you forgot to carry the 1?
Hmm. Okay yes. Make that eleven dimensions.
Yes but it fits my ToE.
Hang on … if this is right then … one must be equal to zero … are you sure about your ToE?
Don’t worry about that. It’s a paradox.
Oh, of course. Genius. You’ve solved everything … again.
Honestly, I don’t know how I do it!
Your ToE sure has big shoes to fill now.
While most physicists concocted a grout of paradoxes to patch up the cracks in their mosaics of everything, Higgs was busy expanding upon his theories of Symmetry Breaking that led to his breakthrough idea of the Higgs mechansim.
Simply put, Higgs postulated that prior to the Big Bang subatomic particles had no mass, but then very soon after that event they acquired mass as a consequence of sticking to the Higgs field. It is the Higgs field that confers mass on particles. This mechanism also predicted that a particle would be created in the Higgs field, the Higgs boson.
So it should be argued that Peter Higgs’ greatest contribution was not that he predicted the existence of yet another elementary particle for us to be confused by, but that with the Higgs mechanism he solved a pressing paradoxical problem and linked subatomic physics and astrophysics such that there is now hope for a Theory of Everything. This is what those in the know refer to as the Standard model.
If CERN can definitively determine that their particular bosonic discovery is the Higgs boson then for many the Standard model will be Q.E.D. tick, gold star, in your face Higgsless models.
Amazingly Higgs work was initially rejected for publication as being irrelevant, by Physics Letters, which even more hilariously was a journal run by CERN, the very people now scrambling to prove it all true and spending billions in the process.
Shortly after the Physics Letters rejection, and with little additional work, Higgs’ theories were accepted for publication in the American journal Physical Review Letters. That journal now has a healthy impact factor of 7.3, significantly better than poor old Physics Letters.
Despite CERN giving birth to the World Wide Web as a means of sharing it’s dearth of scientific data, and having countless other successes, maybe that shameful Higgs rejection is why CERN has been like a dog at a bone trying to prove the existence of Higgs boson. The 27 kilometre tunnels of the LHC were built specifically for this purpose.
It would be understandable if that conglomeration of post war western European countries that created CERN didn’t want to play second fiddle to those upstart Americans again. The second highest energy particle accelerator in the world, the American Tevatron at Fermilabs, had found success discovering the final fundamental fermion, the top quark. CERN needed a win, and for some time it looked certain that Fermilabs would beat CERN to the final Higgs punch.
History will paint the Europeans the winners. It will be forgotten that the USA ever cared about bosons. Although if their history books do contain a chapter on CERN, those bald eagles across the Atlantic might well colour them as ungracious winners. Comical as it is outside the USA, CERN’s decision to announce the discovery of the boson on the 4th of July was a little harsh. If Linford Christie beat Carl Lewis by a nose then stabbed him in the heart during the victory lap … not to suggest either party are cheats but … you get the point. CERN was just plain mean.
At this point it should be noted that Peter does not deserve all the credit for the transatlantic battle of the physicists. It is somewhat forgotten that a couple of disgruntled Belgians, Brout and Englert, came up with a mathematically distinct but conclusively identical body of work at the same time as Higgs. Their description of what is now called the Higgs field was even published marginally ahead of Higgs’ work. If the Belgian tongue was as widely appreciated as the chocolate melting upon it, maybe we would now be twisting our tongues around the Brout Englert boson.
There are also the Americans Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik to be considered as they too are credited with co-discovery, and don’t forget Anderson and ‘t Hooft. The list goes on. As it stands not even ten Tevatrons could dislodge the name of Higgs from his boson.
If Peter does stick around long enough for the Nobel committee sheep and vultures to wake up to his brilliance then it would come as little surprise if some of the forgotten heroes also get the nod. Unfortunately for Robert Brout he passed away in 2011 making him ineligible for his deserved global recognition.
Sometimes embarrassed and humbled by his fame, Higgs has been known to deferentially refer to his Higgs mechanism instead as the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism. While a Klingon may be able to pronounce that mouthful of initials it would be hard pressed to understand the meaning within.
Peter, perhaps just stick to physics and leave politics and nomenclature to us common sensers. You are like your Higgs field, stuck fast on that boson. Your weighty name shall never dislodge.
To all you other bozos:
You should have worked on a rare sea anemone, or the latest in an infinite list of habitable planets, or Martian water mythology, or …
… bad luck, it’s Higgs boson now. Don’t touch!
Not that you can touch it … or see it, or do anything of particular interest with it.
This boson is so fleeting that even when you collide all the other particles together in the world’s largest laboratory at ludicrous speed you can only barely assume the existence of the little fella. Then *poof* …
… like Pistorian sponsorship deals …
… it’s gone!
Formulation of the Higgs mechanism and predicting the existence of the most elusive of fundamental particles is not so simple as foreseeing the end of the world, or the imminent demise of Manchester United F.C. For this reason Stephen Hawking even laid out a wheelchair busting 100 US dollar bet declaring that proof of Higgs’ prediction was impossible due to little black holes everywhere. There is more to nothing than black holes Stephen!
To be fair to Hawking, proof of the mysterious boson was impossible, for a while.
CERN’s LHC predecessor suffered from mini Richter scale events caused by the passing of distant French trains. It is amazing to think that we can calculate anything subatomic with accuracy when you consider that we are stuck down here on this chaotic planet speeding through space and time while spinning on an angled axis and being influenced by the pull of the sun and the moon, not to mention tectonic movements, North Korean nuclear events, German sub woofer doof doof electronic music …
… and those croissant laden trains.
To be unfair to Hawking though, making a bet that we will never discover something is rather stupid as you can very easily be proven wrong. It is far more difficult to be proven right, unless you are planning on living forever or are capable of travelling through time to the end of the universe or the end of humanity. Although … it would be a fair bet that Stephen Hawking would be the first to try.
Thanks to the world’s largest and most expensive experiment and one of the largest scientific teams ever assembled, Higgs will most likely get his due credit. Hawking has already pledged to return the 100 US dollars he received when CERN previously failed to find the boson. Shouldn’t he return 200 bucks though? He already took 100 in premature victory. Who taught him maths?
Having most likely been proven wrong, Hawking now agrees that Higgs should get the Nobel prize to match his particle, but is also quoted as stating that “it is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.”
This is the single best reason why Peter Higgs, not CERN, should get the Nobel prize in physics next year. The Nobels award diligence and intelligence, but of vital importance is that they reward ideas. There is very little left in the world that does reward ideas. A brilliant epiphany might solve world hunger, WMD concerns, and win the Superbowl. But these days, unless you have patented the technology behind your thoughts, then you are a poor man, monetarily speaking. Meanwhile some other clown can enter with a legal team and collect the bounty.
The Nobel prizes should continue to reward individuals struck by moments of apparent divine illumination. Aside from Hitler, how many people of the modern era can say that their ideas led to the amalgamation of massive wealth and manpower all unified in an attempt to prove them right?
Also let us not forget that the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics was given to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer. Their work led to the discovery of the W and Z bosons. W and Z? And they get a Nobel? Peter’s boson is already named after him. C’mon Nobel committee, throw the man a golden bone.
If Peter does not receive the Nobel prize for Physics, he will of course find consolation in being the Science Satire Serpent’s February Hero of Science, and never a more deserving bozo could there be.
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photo credit: dullhunk via photopin cc, Lucas Taylor (http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469), via Wikimedia Commons, By Gert-Martin Greuel [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, Antoaneta via photopin