Profile: Prof Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame
- 20 December 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
Three years ago when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern), few people outside his field had heard of Peter Higgs. But as scientists there reveal they may have glimpsed the elusive Higgs boson particle which bears his name, Prof Higgs is now famous around the world.
This quiet octogenarian has waited patiently for the world to catch up with his ideas.
His theory about the existence of the elusive particle - or boson - came in 1964, in a moment of inspiration while walking in the Cairngorms. He wrote two papers about it.
The second was initially rejected by the journal Physics Letters, which annoyed him. He later said they clearly did not understand him, but it was finally published not long after in Physical Review Letters, another leading publication.
By the early 1970s Higgs' name was being associated in academic papers and conferences with the theories that he and teams in Belgium and London had been researching independently.
And the particle itself was to acquire Higgs' name. A former colleague, Oxford Emeritus Prof Ken Peach, recalls returning from a conference where the fellow scientists were referring constantly to Peter Higgs: "I saw Peter in the coffee lounge and said 'Hey Peter! You're famous!'"
His reaction was typically low-key, and he gave a diffident smile.
"Peter is a very unassuming man, and I think for many years he was somewhat embarrassed by all of the attention. I think over the years he has become more comfortable with it," says Prof Peach.
Still, not overly so.
"He's very self-effacing," says the science journalist Ian Sample, author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.
"He still sometimes squirms when you call it the 'Higgs boson' in his presence.
"He refers to it sometimes as 'the boson which bears my name' in an apologetic way. He realises that his name has gone onto something that was really the result of many people's work."
Peter Higgs was born in Newcastle in 1929. His father was a BBC sound engineer.
When his family moved to Bristol, he proved a brilliant student at Cotham Grammar School, winning many prizes - except in physics.
But one day, sitting through a dull assembly, a famous name on the honour board of ex-pupils caught his eye: the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Paul Dirac .
"Peter was really good at reading around subjects, and wouldn't just go to lessons and learn what the teachers say," says Ian Sample.
"So, Peter really got into Dirac and what the issues of physics were at the time."
After school, Higgs read physics at King's College London, studying the then brand-new theoretical option.
Fellow student Michael Fisher - now a professor at the University of Maryland - remembers Higgs excelling in the first-ever exam in the subject: "As I recall he did the problem in quantum mechanics. It was based on a paper that had been published recently... and by all accounts he did a better job on the problem that was set to him in a three-hour exam than the original author of the scientific paper had done."
Higgs was awarded first class honours in 1950. He applied for a lectureship at King's College, but it was his friend Michael Fisher who got the job, and so Higgs headed to Scotland.
Going it alone
"As a 31-year-old researcher at the University of Edinburgh, people called him a fuddy-duddy because he was working on something that was seen as uncool," says Ian Sample.
"It was a type of physics that people just thought was going nowhere. And he just decided 'No, you don't understand it as well as I do, and I think it's got something and I think it's worth pursuing'.
"And if he hadn't pursued it - and he was pretty much alone in doing it, certainly in the UK - he wouldn't have got his theory, it wouldn't have happened, we would never have heard of him."
Outside of academic circles, though, Higgs was not well known.
For the next 20 years, he continued writing and teaching but there were difficulties in both his professional and his personal life. He had married, but split from his wife a few years after their two sons were born.
And some friends feel Peter Higgs did not make the kind of impact that might be expected of a scientist of his calibre.
"I wouldn't say he was shy. I might say that he was a little too retiring perhaps for the good of his own career," says Prof Michael Fisher.
"You might say that he would be much better known ahead of time if he'd had a little more inclination."
Peter Higgs retired from the University of Edinburgh in 2006, and continues to watch developments at Cern from a distance - without a TV, or a computer, and rarely answering the phone, though keeping up-to-date through the latest physics journals.
He continues to inspire a younger generation of physicists, such as Dr Victoria Martin, who was in his last undergraduate class at Edinburgh, and who was with him as Edinburgh University staff gathered to watch the announcement at Cern that the Higgs boson had possibly been identified.
"I was sitting in front of him, and he seemed quite pleasantly happy with the news that was coming out of Cern - I was probably more excited than he was. He was quietly happy."
"You never get a sense of real excitement - 'They must find it, please let them find it' - from him," says Ian Sample.
"He says things like 'I have to hope my doctor keeps me alive long enough for them to find it.'"
Nearly 50 years after the paper on what was to be the Higgs boson was first rejected, Prof Peach sees a happy symmetry for Peter Higgs, in seeing the world's largest laboratory prove what he knew was right all along: "One of the things I'd say about Peter is that his character is completely consistent, and I think the drive to understand how the universe works is also consistent with the desire to make sure that the universe itself is a fit and decent place to live."