When CERN Director General Rolf Heuer announced last Wednesday morning “We have discovered a new particle; a boson; most probably a Higgs boson”, many people worldwide stifled a yawn. Yes it was yet another undecipherable scientific discovery that the layman could not appreciate.
Yet amongst the international audience a single figure was moved to tears.
Caught on the cameras of the global news agencies, this white-haired gentleman removed his glasses and wiped away the liquid evidence of unbound emotion. He was probably feeling a mixture of joy, sadness, validation and pride.
The joy is understandable; something he predicted in 1964, that subatomic particles gain mass by way of a then undiscovered field or particle, since called the Higgs Boson, has been proven. And what’s more, it’s been proven during his lifetime. Peter Ware Higgs is now 83, and the joy of July 4th will remain with him for the rest of his life.
Sadness? Nobody but Higgs understands the sacrifices that have been made over the years as a result of his theory. These were personal and professional, all felt deeply by this physicist.
Validation? Science and scientists can be very closed-minded. If it can’t be repeated and measured, it doesn’t exist. This is a tenet that rules their lives. Some, however, dream. Even when bigger names in the Theoretical Physics world, such as Stephen Hawking, decried his theories, he stood by his guns. It cost him dearly in his personal life; professionally he was on the fringe.
Everything changed on Wednesday.
Paul Padley, a particle physicist at Rice University, said “the reason why we care about it, is if the Higgs boson doesn’t exist, then we have absolutely no physical understanding of why we exist. You can’t explain the universe.”
The confirmation of Peter Higgs theory has been likened to the discovery of DNA. Yet in one fundamental aspect it isn’t. DNA was first isolated by the Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher in 1869, yet it was James D. Watson and Francis Crick who produced, in 1953, what is now accepted as the first correct double-helix model of DNA structure and received a Nobel Prize for their work.
Here we have a man, working against the dominant thought in his field; fighting to make his theories heard; clamouring against many voices raised in opposition; and above all, willing to forfeit a normal life to expand Humanity’s knowledge.
Peter Higgs is a proud man today and deservedly so.
Yet in his unassuming manner, he comments only the following: “It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime.”
How will this discovery change the way we live our lives? Only the immediate future will answer that. Yet one thing is certain; change there will be, and in ways we cannot imagine today.
For Peter Higgs, recognition should be the next step. A Knighthood; a Nobel Prize; public acclaim. Write to your MPs, the Nobel Committee, your newspapers; tweet and blog all you can. Although the acknowledgment of a Nobel pales in comparison to the cost in his personal life, let’s join forces to ensure his dream is rewarded.
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com