The remarkable discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 thrust Peter Higgs into the spotlight, captivating the public and igniting a profound fascination with the fundamental principles of physics. While Peter Higgs became a household name, tantalizingly little is known about the man behind the breakthrough, apart from his iconic moniker. On the occasion of his 94th birth anniversary, let us take a journey through his life and explore the groundbreaking ideas he brought to the world of science.
Peter Higgs, born to Thomas Ware Higgs, a sound engineer for the BBC, and Gertrude Maude née Coghill, hailed from Newcastle, arriving in this world on May 29, 1929. A childhood fraught with asthma complications disrupted his early education, necessitating initial home-schooling.
At the tender age of 17, Higgs relocated to London, immersing himself in the studies of mathematics and physics. His academic journey culminated with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, and, subsequently, a Ph.D. from King’s College for his illuminating thesis, ‘Some Problems in the Theory of Molecular Vibrations.’ This significant doctoral work sparked his enduring fascination with the application of symmetry to physical systems.
A milestone in Higgs’s professional trajectory was his 1960 appointment as a Lecturer in Mathematical Physics at Edinburgh. The institution proved to be his academic home for the rest of his career, during which he held positions such as Reader in Mathematical Physics and Professor of Theoretical Physics, up until his retirement in 1996.
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Peter worked extensively in the arena of molecular spectroscopy and quantum field theory. However, his most remarkable work remains the theory that he postulated regarding the acquisition of masses by all the particles in our universe.
In 1962, Philip Warren Anderson proposed a mechanism (later known as the Higgs mechanism) to explain the origin of mass for gauge bosons. It was stated that without this mechanism, all the bosons would be considered massless, but measurements showed that the W+, W−, and Z0 bosons actually had relatively large masses of around 80 GeV/c2.
Peter Higgs came up with a solution to this problem. He developed the idea that all the particles were massless when the universe began. However, they acquired mass a fraction of a second later after interacting with a theoretical scalar field.
He further postulated that this theoretical field permeates space and gives mass to all elementary subatomic particles interacting with it. Although many other groups simultaneously had also posed similar solutions, none of them predicted the existence of a heavy boson associated with that scalar field like Peter.
The Higgs Boson and the Nobel Prize
Particle physicists searched for the particle predicted by Peter Higgs for decades. Finally, on July 4, 2012, CERN announced that the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiments had probably detected signs that somehow indicated the presence of an extremely massive particle in the mass region around 126 GeV/c2. This was perhaps the same particle predicted by Peter Higgs about 48 years ago and thus was named after him as Higgs Boson.
Ironically, the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson was made at the same place where Peter’s earlier paper concerning the same was rejected! Eventually, in 2013, the existence of the Higgs Boson was officially confirmed, and the Nobel Prize in physics was jointly awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for their theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles.
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Quality over quantity
Peter Higgs told The Guardian that no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough. He has never sent an email, browsed the internet, or even made a mobile phone call. He published fewer than ten papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, published in 1964.
He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.” Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises.” A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’
By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired, it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things anymore. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”
Awards and Honors
Time and again, Peter Higgs has been honored with numerous awards in recognition of his exemplary work. Higgs became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1983 and even received the Wolf Prize in physics and the J.J. Sakurai Prize. After winning the Nobel in 2013, the Royal Society also honored him with the prestigious Copley Medal in 2015.
Peter Higgs believes strongly in science prowess and inspires generations to pursue research in the purest and the most diligent manner possible.
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Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from Punjab, India and I am currently pursuing my doctoral studies on Radio Emissions of Exoplanets in Barcelona, Spain. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.