Early night cost Higgs credit for big physics theory
- 18 February 2014
- From the section Science & Environment
Nobel laureate Peter Higgs could have been one of the architects of physics' biggest theory - but missed out because of an early night.
He says he was at a science meeting in 1960 where physicists contemplated ideas that would lead to a "theory of everything" - the Standard Model.
But the discussion went on into the small hours, and Prof Higgs went to bed early.
He thus failed to make a key connection between his work and that of others.
Three years after the British physicist predicted the existence of the Higgs mechanism, it was shown to be central to the Standard Model, the dominant "big theory" in physics, and our best understanding of how the Universe works.
The suggestion is contained in a revealing interview with Prof Higgs on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific.
In the interview, he also blames his work for the breakdown of his marriage.
The Higgs mechanism explains why particles have mass. It predicts the existence of a particle, the Higgs boson, which was finally detected at Cern in 2012, after a 50-year effort.
Last year, Prof Higgs and Belgian physicist François Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the idea.
But Prof Higgs told the programme that he missed its true significance at the time. The physicists Shelley Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg received a Nobel prize in 1979 for ideas that lie at the heart of the Standard Model, and Prof Higgs might have been among them.
He explained: "I think I probably realised that I just missed something as a result of a number of accidental circumstances, first being that when I first met Shelley Glashow at the first Scottish Universities Summer School in Physics in 1960, there was a group of students at the summer school who stayed up halfway through the night discussing things like weak and electromagnetic interactions.
"But I wasn't part of that - I was on the committee, and I had work to do, so I didn't stay up all night, so I didn't learn about Glashow's theory when I could have."
The rest was history. Others received plaudits for formulating a theory in which the Higgs boson plays an important role. And Prof Higgs confesses that he got left behind as the field continued to develop.
He said: "I was failing to keep up with the technical developments which flowed out of their [Weinberg, Salam and Glashow's] work and I only really came back into the theoretical work in a more active way in the '70s."
He says work pressure contributed to the breakdown of his marriage and that, perhaps, he suffered a personality change in the mid-Sixties when he realised his research might be successful.
It is the first time he has spoken publicly of his break-up with Jody, an American linguist.
He said: "The early 70s was the time of the break-up of my marriage. It was a few years when I didn't do very much apart from get on with my teaching.
"Part of the problem was that when my wife and I got married she thought of me as an easygoing person and I can't say that I wasn't.
"I wasn't easygoing in terms of my research but I was very easygoing in terms of being adaptable in my social life."
Prof Higgs said he spent much of the 60s working alone.
"Nobody else took what I was doing seriously. So nobody would want to work with me," he said. "I was thought to be a bit eccentric and maybe cranky."
In July 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Geneva confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found and Peter Higgs shot to fame. Of his newfound celebrity, Prof Higgs says: "It's a bit of a nuisance sometimes, frankly."
Peter Higgs shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics with Prof Englert, but he believes there should have been a third name.
"I really rather hoped before the announcement that they would make the number up to three, and there was certainly an obvious candidate to be the third - [British physicist] Tom Kibble," Prof Higgs says.
"Not only did he publish the last of the papers in 1964, he also wrote a longer paper which was really very important in generalising the sort of thing I had written in '64."
When the 2013 Nobel winners were announced in October, and committee members could not get through on the phone to Peter Higgs, many assumed the professor emeritus at Edinburgh was blissfully unaware that he might win or just not that interested.
In fact, he left the house quite deliberately that morning fully expecting the Nobel Committee to call.
Asked what he thought was the best analogy for the Higgs boson, Prof Higgs said he preferred theoretical physicist John Ellis's "snowfield" to "treacle", which he objected to strongly because there was no viscosity involved.
The Life Scientific is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 18 February, at 09:00 GMT.