How the ‘divine particle’ ruined the life of the physicist who discovered it

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013, British physicist Peter Higgs, 93, made history for having made – with the Belgian François Englet – one of the most important discoveries in science, the Higgs boson , also known as “God Particle”.

Theoretically first proposed by Higgs in 1964, the “God particle” takes its name from the fact that it would be omnipresent, that is, it would be everywhere. And, in fact, it is, because the proof in practice took place on July 4, 2012, which earned Higgs the Nobel Prize.

Although he revolutionized some of the theoretical thinking of physics, Higgs considered the spotlight that had surrounded him since winning the Nobel Prize to be something that had ruined his own life. This was revealed by physicist Frank Close, author of the book “Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass”, released in 2022. The book tells the story of the physicist and his theory.

“One of the biggest shocks I had interviewing him was when he said that the discovery of the boson “ruined [sua] life’. He spoke: “My relatively peaceful existence was coming to an end. My style is to work in isolation and occasionally come up with a brilliant idea,” Close said in an interview with Scientific American.

According to Close, when he won the Nobel Prize, Higgs was “retired”, but at the same time a person “thrown into the limelight”. And it still bothers him today.

The Nobel Prize, Close says, forced Higgs to leave his home in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, and move to a country property. This happened on the same day as the Nobel Prize announcement so no one could disturb him.

For Close, the award-winning physicist took this step because he was always averse to the spotlight. His “God particle” theory, even, was viewed with disdain by the physicist himself for being the “only thing” of importance throughout his career.

The physicist who biographed Higgs, however, considers that, if the Briton had only one idea throughout his academic career, this discovery “was really brilliant”. He also rules out that the “God particle” can be reduced to chance.

“It’s easy to think of him as lucky, and clearly luck was part of it. But being in the right place at the right time, you have to recognize that. Higgs spent two or three years really trying to figure out a specific problem. .”

Evidence of the relief caused by the “God particle”

According to the theories of physics, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle considered to be one of the basic raw materials for the creation of the Universe.

Unlike atoms, which are made up of mass, Higgs particles would have no element in their composition. They are important because they support one of the most accepted theories about the Universe – that of the Standard Model, which explains how other particles got mass. According to this thesis, the Universe cooled after the Big Bang, when an invisible force, known as the Higgs field, formed with associated particles, the Higgs bosons, transferring mass to other fundamental particles.

Even with their whole theoretically grounded framework, Higgs and Englert still had to prove it in practice. This happened in 2012, when the work was finally proven in experiments carried out on the gigantic collider at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN).

Close reveals in his book that Higgs felt relieved by the discovery in practice of his theory, but at the same time he felt distressed that his life would change from there.

“He told me his first reaction was relief that it had been confirmed. At that moment he knew that [a partícula existia] after all, and I felt a deep sense of delight that it really was in the wild – and then he panicked that his life was about to change,” Close concluded.

Who is Peter Higgs?

The British Higgs was born on May 29, 1929 in Newcastle, the son of a sound engineer who worked on the British public television channel “BBC”. In 1950, Higgs graduated in physics with the best record at King’s College London and four years later became a doctor with a thesis entitled “Some Problems in the Theory of Molecular Vibrations”.

With the exception of four years in London, the physicist has spent his entire career at the Scottish University of Edinburgh, where he was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics in 1960, Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1980, and where he is still professor emeritus.

In 1964 Higgs first presented his theory of the existence of a particle or boson in a brief one-sheet paper which, as he recalled during a visit to Barcelona the last year, was rejected by a scientific journal.

After that, a second larger version was published, in which Higgs developed the idea that particles had no mass at the beginning of the Universe and acquired it a fraction of a second later at the result of an interaction with a theoretical field, now known as the “Higgs field”.

*With information from the AFP, Efe and Reuters agencies.

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