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Peter Higgs obituary | Peter Higgs



Peter Higgs obituary | Peter Higgs

In 1964 the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who has died aged 94, instructed that the universe incorporates an all-pervading essence that may be manifested within the type of particles. This concept impressed governments to spend billions to seek out what turned often known as Higgs bosons.

The so-called “Higgs mechanism” controls the speed of thermonuclear fusion that powers the solar, however for which this engine of the photo voltaic system would have expired lengthy earlier than evolution had time to work its miracles on earth. The construction of atoms and matter and, arguably, existence itself are all suspected to come up on account of the mechanism, whose veracity was proved with the experimental discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

The Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman famously described the boson as “the God particle”. Higgs, an atheist, discovered this inappropriate and deceptive, however the title caught and helped convey fame to the concept, and to Higgs. He in flip turned a Nobel prizewinner in 2013.

It was at Edinburgh College, as a younger lecturer in mathematical physics within the early Sixties, that Higgs took an interest within the profound and tantalising methods during which properties – mathematical symmetries – within the equations describing basic legal guidelines might be hidden within the constructions that come up.

For instance, in house, unaffected by the earth’s gravity, a droplet of water seems to be the identical in all instructions: it’s spherically symmetric, in settlement with the symmetry implied by the underlying mathematical equations describing the behaviour of water molecules. But when water freezes, the ensuing snowflake takes up a distinct symmetry – its form solely showing the identical when rotated via multiples of 60 levels – despite the fact that the underlying equations stay the identical.

The Japanese-American physicist Yoichiro Nambu first impressed curiosity on this phenomenon, often known as spontaneous symmetry breaking, in 1960. Inspired by Nambu’s work, in 1964 Higgs’s personal principle emerged with its clarification of how equations that decision for massless particles (such because the quantum principle of the electromagnetic subject, which results in the massless photon) can, by way of the so-called Higgs mechanism, give rise to particles with a mass.

Peter Higgs at Edinburgh College after the announcement of his Nobel prize in 2013. {Photograph}: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

This concept would later be on the root of Gerardus ’t Hooft’s proof in 1971 that unification of the electromagnetic pressure and the weak pressure, chargeable for radioactivity, the place a large “W” particle performs the analogous position to the massless photon, is viable. The next discovery of the W in 1983 gained Nobel prizes, each for the experiment and for theorists who had foreseen this. Underlying this success was the so-called Higgs mechanism, which managed the arithmetic on this clarification of the weak pressure.

When Nambu gained the Nobel prize in 2008, it started to look probably that the way in which was being ready for Higgs’s eventual recognition.

An issue although, as Higgs was all the time the primary to emphasize, was that he had not been alone in discovering the potential for mass “spontaneously” showing. Related concepts had already been articulated by the condensed matter physicist Philip Anderson, although in a extra restricted manner, and by Robert Brout and François Englert in Belgium, who beat Higgs into print by just a few weeks. A former colleague of Higgs at Imperial School London, Tom Kibble, and two colleagues have been to write down a paper alongside related strains weeks later.

The place Higgs had justifiable claims to uniqueness was within the boson. He drew consideration to the truth that in sure circumstances spontaneously damaged symmetry implied {that a} huge particle ought to seem, whose affinity for interacting with different particles can be in proportion to their plenty.

It might be discovery of this particle that would give experimental verification that the speculation is certainly an outline of nature. Though even this boson was arguably implicit in different work, it was Higgs who articulated most sharply its implications in particle physics.

The eponymous “Higgs boson” turned the standard-bearer for the Massive Hadron Collider (LHC). Within the early Nineteen Nineties the science minister William Waldegrave issued his problem: clarify the Higgs boson on a sheet of paper and assist me to persuade the federal government to fund this.

Among the many winners, probably the most well-known was the analogy, by David Miller of College School London, of Margaret Thatcher – a large particle – wandering via a cocktail occasion on the Tory convention and gathering hangers-on as she moved. Higgs, whose politics have been diametrically reverse to hers, expressed himself as being “very comfy” with the outline.

He was all the time uncomfortable as a star. When Cern – the European Organisation for Nuclear Analysis – ready to modify on the LHC in 2008, the media promoted it as a quest for the Higgs boson.

Higgs felt that Cern was misguided to speak up “the” boson – he was all the time the primary to emphasize that others had had a lot the identical thought and that naming it after him was unfair. He as soon as modestly described the detection of the boson as “tying up free ends” and regarded the principle pleasure of the LHC as its potential to disclose the secrets and techniques of darkish matter and different kinds of latest physics.

Nonetheless, in July 2012, Cern introduced the invention of a particle “with Higgs-like properties”. Media frenzy grew, and Higgs bravely accepted his destiny as a centre of consideration.

Peter Higgs in his outdated workplace at Edinburgh College with an outline of the Higgs mannequin, written by him on the blackboard. {Photograph}: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Though most physicists have been positive that the eponymous boson had been found, a number of months’ extra research can be wanted earlier than full affirmation may very well be assured: the Nobel prize for 2012 went elsewhere. By 2013 the proof was compelling; there was a common expectation that 2013 can be the 12 months.

By this stage, 49 years had elapsed since Higgs had written his first paper on the topic. In a last, nailbiting twist, the announcement of his long-awaited success was delayed by an hour because the Nobel committee struggled to succeed in the famously reclusive scientist. Conscious of the media consideration he was more likely to get, Higgs had determined to be “someplace else” when the announcement was made, and informed colleagues that he deliberate to take a vacation within the north-west Highlands of Scotland.

Because the date approached, nonetheless, he realised that this was not a superb plan for that point of the 12 months, so he determined to remain at house and be someplace else on the proper time. At round 11am on 8 October, he left house and by midday, when the announcement ought to have been made, he was in Leith, by the shore, in a bar known as the Classic, which Higgs famously attested bought each meals and “fairly good beers”.

Thus with Higgs incommunicado (he largely prevented utilizing cell phones or the web), after greater than an hour of unsuccessful makes an attempt to succeed in him, the Swedish Academy determined to make the general public announcement anyway. The ironic consequence was that by 2pm, the information that Peter Higgs and Englert, of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, have been the winners of the Nobel prize for physics was recognized to the world, however to not Higgs himself. (Englert’s colleague Brout had died in 2011, and was unable to be included as Nobel prizes will not be awarded posthumously.)

Higgs later recalled how, “after an acceptable interval”, however nonetheless unaware of the information, he had made his manner house from lunch. Nonetheless, he delayed additional by visiting an artwork exhibition, as “it appeared too early to get house, the place reporters would most likely be gathered”.

At about three o’clock he was strolling alongside Heriot Row, heading for his flat within the subsequent road, when a automobile pulled up close to Queen Avenue Gardens. A woman obtained out “in a really excited state” and informed Higgs: “My daughter’s simply phoned from London and informed me in regards to the award.” To which Higgs replied: “What award?” As he defined, he was joking, however that’s when his expectations have been confirmed.

His plan had been a hit, as, “I managed to get in my entrance door with no extra injury than one photographer mendacity in wait.” A bit greater than a decade later, the principle focus of the LHC has been to provide massive numbers of Higgs bosons to be able to perceive the character of the omnipresent essence that they kind.

Peter Higgs discussing the award of his Nobel prize, and the work that led to it

In the course of the coronavirus lockdown I talked with him for hours on the telephone at weekends in the midst of researching the biography Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Thriller of Mass (2022). When requested to summarise his perspective on public response to the boson he stated: “It ruined my life.” To know nature via arithmetic, to see your principle confirmed, to win the plaudits of friends and win a Nobel prize, how may this equate with destroy? He defined: “My comparatively peaceable existence was ending. I dont take pleasure in this form of publicity. My model is to work in isolation, and sometimes have a vivid thought.”

Higgs spent greater than half a century as a theoretical physicist at Edinburgh College. Maybe due to this, he was described in lots of media stories as a “Scottish physicist”, whereas in reality he was born in Newcastle, of English dad and mom, Gertrude (nee Coghill) and Thomas Higgs.

His father was a sound engineer with the BBC, and the household moved virtually instantly to Birmingham, the place Peter spent his first 11 years. In 1941, with the second world conflict intensifying, the BBC determined that Birmingham was too harmful, and its operations have been transferred to Bristol. The Higgs household duly moved there, with the intention of avoiding aerial bombardment, however the next weekend the centre of Bristol was closely bombed.

In Bristol, Higgs attended Cotham grammar college, the place a well-known former pupil had been the Nobel physicist Paul Dirac. Dirac’s title was distinguished on the honours board. Higgs adopted him, however initially in arithmetic fairly than physics. Higgs’s father had a group of maths books, which impressed Peter and enabled him to be develop into far forward of the category. His curiosity in physics was sparked in 1946, upon listening to the Bristol physicists, later Nobel laureates, Cecil Powell and Nevill Mott describing the background to the atomic bomb programme. Though this helped decide his profession, Higgs himself later turned a member of CND.

At King’s School London he studied theoretical physics, happening to achieve his PhD in 1954. He was engaged on molecular physics, making use of concepts of symmetry to molecular construction. His pursuits moved in the direction of particle physics, and his workplace was on the identical hall as these of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, two of the co-discoverers of the construction of DNA, although his work had no instant hyperlink to their programme.

He gained analysis fellowships, first on the College of Edinburgh (1954-56), then in London at College School (1956-57), and at Imperial School (1957-58). He was appointed lecturer in arithmetic at College School London in 1958, after which moved to the College of Edinburgh in 1960, the place he spent the remainder of his analysis profession. Initially lecturer in mathematical physics, in 1970 he was appointed reader and, in 1980, professor of theoretical physics. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1974, and FRS in 1983.

He met his future spouse, the linguist Jody Williamson, at a CND assembly in 1960. They married in 1963, and had two sons, Christopher and Jonathan. Though they separated, they remained buddies till her loss of life in 2008.

Higgs gained a number of awards along with the 2013 Nobel prize. Along with quite a few honorary levels, these included the 1997 Dirac medal and prize from the Institute of Physics, the 2004 Wolf prize in physics, the Sakurai prize of the American Bodily Society in 2010, and the Edinburgh medal in 2013. That 12 months he was additionally appointed Companion of Honour, and two years later he gained the Copley medal of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific prize.

His sons survive him.

Peter Ware Higgs, theoretical physicist, born 29 Might 1929; died 8 April 2024

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