the man behind the God particle

Peter Higgs faces a Large Hadron Collider art projection

Peter Higgs predicted a boson that completed the Standard Model of particle physics.Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of the Mass Frank Close Basic (2022).

Peter Higgs is not the easiest subject for a biographer to tackle. A 93-year-old British theoretical physicist who won half a Nobel Prize in 2013 is notoriously shy, unreachable by email and mobile phone, self-deprecating and averse to the limelight. In addition, physicist Frank Close took on the task of profiling him during the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out Close’s plans to dig into archives and consult Higgs extensively.

But the author is, one can’t help but say, a good friend of Higgs, and he spoke regularly to his subject over the landline. untouchable – a title referring to both the man and the subatomic particle he predicted – ended as a light-hearted yet informative book that intertwines the story of Higgs’ life with that of the construction of the great theoretical building known as the Standard Model of Elemental particle physics. In 1964, Higgs contributed a crucial piece to that model, theorizing about the existence of a particle — later known as the Higgs boson — that imbues all other particles with mass. The Higgs was triumphantly discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, in 2012. Focusing on Higgs distinguishes this book from science writer Jim Baggott’s 2012 book. Higgswhich is more about science and saves only a few pages for the man himself.

Close gives a brief overview of Higgs’ mentors, interests, and the depressive episode that kept him from physics. We learn about factors that shaped Higgs’ career – his early education in Bristol, UK, and degree from King’s College London, inspirational figures (physicists Charles Coulson and Paul Dirac) and the role of political activity such as his membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in forging a network of contacts. These influences sparked his interest in quantum field theory, which eventually forced him to confront the most challenging puzzle facing the discipline at the time: why is there mass?

untouchable corresponds to Higgs’ personal story with an outline of the many components incorporated into the architecture of the Standard Model: the theoretical framework of quantum field theory, the solutions to numerous problems in the model’s structure, plus all the particles and fields that the theory included . But an important element was missing: a way to explain how fundamental particles can have mass and why they have the mass they have.

Missing piece

The groundbreaking idea was that a type of particle called a boson could eliminate the problem that hindered attempts to explain mass. Close handles the tricky and potentially controversial issue of the five other theoretical physicists who independently came up with the same concept around the same time. He cites others who argue that all the developments that led to this insight meant that Higgs was actually “a rather minor player” or that his role was a matter of luck. But Close justifies adding Higgs’ name to the particle because he both predicted the boson’s existence and suggested a way to identify it.

Certain details are fascinating. A casual remark made by Higgs, while dining out on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was picked up by a journalist. It involved Stephen Hawking’s skeptical response to Higgs’ work and was duly printed on the front pages of newspapers to imply that Higgs had made a “deeply personal attack” on a genius who used a wheelchair, leading to undue tension between the two physicists. Other interesting details include Higgs’ elaborate plans to hide on the day the 2013 Nobel decision was to be announced.

Close has a dazzling ability to summarize complex ideas in accessible metaphors. Fermions and bosons are compared to cuckoos and penguins (the former cannot nest together, the latter live in groups), gauge invariance is compared to air travel (the time it takes to travel is independent of the time zone in which the journey began), bosons at the core to bears in a cave. At times, the metaphors come too quickly—in a single paragraph, Close compares Higgs’ research bibliography to a baseball score (“three hits, three runs, no errors”) and also to works by composers (“Salieri had a much larger body of work than Mozart, but who cares about him?”).

A reader learns to wait for the next over-the-top metaphor, and it gets tiresome after a while – Higgs as a climber of Everest, Higgs as Banquo in Shakespeare’s MacbethHiggs as the “midwife of a revolution”. This last trope is downright false. The Standard Model had been around for nearly half a century before the discovery of the LHC; it was clear that the model depended on a solution to the mass problem; and theorists had made significant progress for years. Higgs was more like the person who designed a long-sought piece to hold the field’s communal meeting house together.

Close’s oversimplifications can be embarrassing when it comes to social causes, such as when he writes about Higgs, during a visit to the United States in the 1960s, and found that it was not “a nation of milk and honey” because it had “a lot of poverty.” ” had. † When the train from Higgs to Washington DC is blocked by snow, it’s shocking to read that Close drops the additional fact — well-intentioned though — that the blizzard “killed large numbers of black Americans living in wooden shacks.”

The back of untouchable declares that the book will “remake our understanding of modern physics”. What could justify that extravagant claim? Certainly not the descriptions of science; scientists and science writers have explained what Higgs has been doing since he won his Nobel Prize nine years ago. The book is especially interested in what it shows – sometimes too talkatively – about physicists. They are not abstract thinkers who study data points and logic to arrive at their conclusions, but individuals with passions and commitments whose research path is often indirect and characterized by missed opportunities and chance encounters. untouchable shows how the story of a physicist’s life, told well, can reveal a lot about life as a physicist.

Competing Interests

The author declares no conflict of interest.

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