Peter Higgs the scientist expected to win Nobel Prize for physics

Once ridiculed, Higgs was proved correct about how particles gained their masses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:02pm

For scientists of a certain calibre, these early days of October can bring on a bad case of the jitters. The nominations are in. All that remains is for the Nobel committees to cast their final votes. There are no sure bets on who will win the most prestigious prize in science this year, but there are expectations aplenty. Speak to particle physicists, and one name comes up more than any other. Top of their wish list of winners - the awards are announced on Tuesday - is the self-deprecating British octogenarian Peter Higgs.

Higgs, 84, is no household name, but he is closer to being one than any Nobel physics laureate since Richard Feynman, the Manhattan Project scientist, who accepted the award reluctantly in 1964.

But while Feynman was a showman who adored attention, Higgs is happy when eclipsed by the particle that bears his name, the elusive boson that scientists at Cern's Large Hadron Collider triumphantly discovered last year.

"He's modest and actually almost to a fault," said Alan Walker, a fellow physicist at Edinburgh University, who sat next to Higgs at Cern when scientists revealed they had found the particle.

"You meet many physicists who will tell you how good they are. Peter doesn't do that."

Higgs, now professor emeritus at Edinburgh, made his breakthrough the same year Feynman won the Nobel. It was an era when the tools of the trade were pencil and paper. He outlined what came to be known as the Higgs mechanism, an explanation for how elementary particles, which make up all that is around us, gained their masses in the earliest moments after the big bang. Before 1964, the question of why the simplest particles weighed anything at all was met with an embarrassed shrug. Higgs' great discovery came at Edinburgh University, where he was considered an outsider for plugging away at ideas that many physicists had abandoned.

At the time an argument was raging in the field over a way that particles might gain their masses. The theory in question was clearly wrong, but Higgs saw why and how to fix it. He published a short note in September 1964 and swiftly wrote a more expansive follow-up paper.

The article was rejected, ironically by an editor at Cern. Indignant, Higgs added two paragraphs to the paper and published it in a rival US journal instead. In the penultimate sentence was the first mention of what became known as the Higgs boson.

At first, there was plenty of resistance to Higgs' theory. Before giving a talk at Harvard in 1966, a senior physicist, the late Sidney Coleman, told his class some idiot was coming to see them. "And you're going to tear him to shreds." Higgs stuck to his guns. Eventually he won them over.

Higgs is not comfortable taking all the credit for the work and goes to great pains to list all the others whose work he built on.

John Ellis, a particle theorist at Cern and Kings College London, said many in the high energy physics community think Higgs, and some others, will win the Nobel prize this year. But he says it is no done deal.

"There are certainly worthy recipients in other areas of physics, and I could imagine scientific and political roadblocks to an award to Higgs," Ellis said. Nobel prizes can be shared by at most three people, but at least five lay claim to the theory.

Watch: Prof. John Ellis of CERN tell a Higgs boson joke and how penguins waddled onto the particle physics scene.