Peter Ware Higgs, FRS, FRSE, FKC (born 29 May 1929), is an English theoretical physicist and an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh. He is best known for his 1960s proposal of broken symmetry in electroweak theory, explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and of the W and Z bosons in particular. This so-called Higgs mechanism, which had several inventors besides Higgs at about the same time, predicts the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson (often described as “the most sought-after particle in modern physics”). Although this particle has not turned up in accelerator experiments so far, the Higgs mechanism is generally accepted as an important ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics, without which particles would have no mass.
Prof. Higgs has been honored with a number of awards in recognition of his work, including the 1997 Dirac Medal and Prize for outstanding contributions to theoretical physics from the Institute of Physics, the 1997 High Energy and Particle Physics Prize by the European Physical Society, the 2004 Wolf Prize in Physics, and the 2010 J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.
Early life, education and career
Higgs was born in Wallsend, North Tyneside. His father worked as a sound engineer for the BBC, and as a result of childhood asthma, together with the family moving around because of his father’s job, and later the Second World War, Higgs missed some early schooling and was taught at home. When his father relocated to Bedford, Higgs stayed behind with his mother in Bristol, and was largely raised there. He attended that city’s Cotham Grammar School, where he was inspired by the work of one of the school’s alumni, Paul Dirac, a founder of the field of quantum mechanics.
At the age of 17 Higgs moved to City of London School, where he specialized in mathematics, then to King’s College London where he graduated with a first class honours degree in Physics, a masters degree, and Ph.D. He became a Senior Research Fellow at the Edinburgh University, then held various posts at University College London and Imperial College London before becoming a temporary lecturer in Mathematics at University College London. He returned to Edinburgh University in 1960 to take up the post of Lecturer at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics, allowing him to settle in the city he had fallen in love with after hitch-hiking to the Edinburgh Fringe festival as a student.
Dr. Higgs was promoted to a personal chair of Theoretical Physics at Edinburgh in 1980. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1983, was awarded the Rutherford Medal and Prize in 1984, and became a fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1991. He retired in 1996 and became Emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh. In 2008 he received an Honorary Fellowship from Swansea University for his work in particle physics.
Work in theoretical physics
At Edinburgh Higgs first became interested in mass, developing the idea that particles were massless when the universe began, acquiring mass a fraction of a second later as a result of interacting with a theoretical field (which became known as the Higgs field). Higgs postulated that this field permeates space, giving all elementary subatomic particles that interact with it their mass. While the Higgs field is postulated to confer mass on quarks and leptons, it causes only a tiny portion of the masses of other subatomic particles, such as protons and neutrons. In these, gluons that bind quarks together confer most of the particle mass.
The original basis of Higgs’ work came from the Japanese-born theorist and Nobel Prize winner Yoichiro Nambu from the University of Chicago. Professor Nambu had proposed a theory known as spontaneous symmetry breaking based on what was known to happen in superconductivity in condensed matter. However, the theory predicted massless particles (the Goldstone’s theorem), a clearly incorrect prediction.
Higgs wrote a short paper exploiting a loophole in Goldstone’s theorem and published it in Physics Letters, a European physics journal edited at CERN, in Switzerland, in 1964.
Higgs wrote a second paper describing a theoretical model (now called the Higgs mechanism) but the paper was rejected (the editors of Physics Letters judged it “of no obvious relevance to physics”). Higgs wrote an extra paragraph and sent his paper to Physical Review Letters, another leading physics-journal, which published it later that year. Other physicists, Robert Brout and Francois Englert and Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble had reached the same conclusion independently about the same time. The three papers written on this boson discovery by Higgs, Guralnik, Hagen, Kibble, Brout, and Englert were each recognized as milestone papers by Physical Review Letters 50th anniversary celebration. While each of these famous papers took similar approaches, the contributions and differences between the 1964 PRL symmetry breaking papers are noteworthy. Nobelist Philip Anderson also claims to have “invented” the “Higgs” boson as far back as 1962.
As an atheist, Higgs is reported to be displeased that the particle is nicknamed the “God particle”. Higgs is afraid the term “might offend people who are religious”. This nickname for the Higgs boson is usually attributed to Leon Lederman, but it is actually the result of Lederman’s publisher’s censoring. Originally Lederman intended to call it “the goddamn particle”, because of its elusiveness.
In December 2011 CERN reported that two independent experiments at the Large Hadron Collider had seen “tantalising hints” of the existence of the Higgs boson. If the Higgs boson is found at CERN, Higgs and the others who contributed to the Brout-Englert-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble mechanism may receive a Nobel Prize.
Higgs was a CND activist while in London and later in Edinburgh, but resigned his membership when the group extended its remit from campaigning against nuclear weapons to campaigning against nuclear power too. He was a Greenpeace member until the group opposed genetically modified organisms.
Higgs was awarded the 2004 Wolf Prize in Physics (sharing it with Brout and Englert), but he refused to fly to Jerusalem to receive the award because it was a state occasion attended by the then President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, and Higgs is opposed to Israel’s actions in Palestine.
Higgs has two sons: Chris, a computer scientist, and Jonny, a jazz musician.
A portrait of Peter Higgs was painted by Ken Currie in 2008. Commissioned by the University of Edinburgh, it was unveiled on 3 April 2009 and hangs in the entrance of the James Clerk Maxwell Building of the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Via Peter Higgs