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Prof. Peter Higgs. Photo: Reuters
Prof. Peter Higgs. Photo: Reuters

There is a story about a young unknown author approaching a famous writer with a huge manuscript and asking him to suggest a title for it. The celebrity had a look at the size and shuddered, and then asked politely, “Does this book have any gun or trumpet?” The young man was shocked. “No, Sir, it is not that kind of a story at all”. The great man returned the manuscript quickly. “Good! Then name it ‘No guns, no trumpets’.”

Scientists, especially physicists, are not supposed to be articulate in general. They find it more comfortable to think in terms of symbols. But there have been exceptions, such as Salam, or Einstein who actually became social leaders as well, and had to give speeches to variable audiences on a regular basis. When I was a graduate student at Cambridge, five persons in my department made so significant contributions that it was fairly obvious they were going to get the Nobel sooner or later. None of them was a great orator. Possibly the most talented of them, Brian Josephson, who got the Nobel for a paper written as a first year grad student, did not seem to speak at all, and usually sat alone in the cafeteria. There was one indomitable character around, however, who used to draw huge audiences with his pithy aphorisms in popular speeches delivered despite a worsening speech impairment. Yes, Stephen Hawking was an exception in many ways.

But physicists do know how to play with words on pieces of paper, possibly by treating them as symbols. Gell-Mann gave some particles a new quantum characteristic which he called ‘strangeness’ and got the prize for it. Later, yet another quantum entity was called ‘charm’ and led to another Nobel. This was followed by ‘beauty/truth.’ (Truth is beauty, beauty truth). ‘Asymptotic freedom’ (the vanishing of nuclear forces at short distances) also brought the big prize to three physicists. The counter limit is called ‘infrared slavery’. One also hears about “colours” of elementary particles, which have nothing to do with the hues we see with our eyes. Gell-Mann also came to the conclusion that protons and neutrons, which make up the nuclei of atoms are composed of sub-particles which he named ‘quarks’, a word he had picked up from James Joyce’s surrealistic novel “Finnegan’s Wake”. Obviously, some physicists can be literate too. Contrast this with Richard Feynman, one of the most talented scientists of all time. His second wife, a very sophisticated lady, left him calling him an uncouth boor. So, to prove something, he brought a maid from England and married her and had a happy life.

the-god-particle-god-particle-creation-universe-religion-1341424376One might suspect that research scientists have to invent amusing names to entertain themselves and their colleagues. It might also have some effect in keeping themselves awake during seminars, where single equations are presented that might take up a couple of blackboards, and still remain unfinished. Now try to imagine Hawking managing all such equations in his head, sitting absolutely still, but thinking and thinking and thinking — serious things, complicated things, and impish things too.

During the late ‘50s, the topic that most attracted physicists was symmetry. Most basic physical laws seemed to be based on symmetries, i.e. the invariance of systems even when they were transformed in various ways — rotation, displacement along a line, replacing positively charged particles by negatively charged particles and vice versa, etc. All symmetries led to the conservation of something important. One expected nature to show a left-right symmetry too (though human beings internally have differences between organs on the two sides). The violation of this symmetry was a shock. Though Salam was one of the scientists working furiously at Imperial College, London, on this problem, the Nobel went to the Chinese physicists Lee and Yang. People began to think physically, mathematically and even philosophically about the mechanisms for symmetry breaking in nature. One can make symmetries break just by adding a term to the energy that breaks the symmetry. But that is an inelegant, brute-force method. A novel process was presented by a relatively young physicist in Edinburgh named Peter Higgs. We are all familiar with the expression E= mc-square, and mass m is always positive. Higgs suggested the existence of a particle with an energy where even the square of the mass is negative. That looks stupid at first sight. But if we rewrite the entire expression for the energy by using a shift, then we get a constant remnant of the particle at every point of space (which breaks the symmetry of empty space spontaneously), and the variable part becomes a real particle with a physical mass.

Satyen Bose
Satyen Bose

I saw Higgs only once during a seminar. I think he had strikingly red hair, and was also rather shyish. Hence, no fancy name for his extraordinary particle; it became known simply as the Higgs boson. ‘Boson’, because this particle does not spin, and non-spinning particles obey the combinatorial math discovered by Satyen Bose, and all such particles are called bosons in Bose’s honour. Alas, Bose spent the rest of his life doing little important physics, and the proposal for using a Higgs particle for spontaneous symmetry breaking had nothing to do with the esraj player.

A few years later American Weinberg and Abdus Salam proposed a model using Higgs mechanism of breaking symmetry in a theory first suggested by Glashow, where electromagnetic force and the weak force that causes nuclei to decay can be presented as different manifestations of the same force, but with very different strengths and ranges because of the broken symmetry. Though ab initio all particles are assumed massless, preserving left-right symmetry, the remnant of the Higgs at all points also makes particles massive. Everything fitted beautifully with experiment. Except one thing — no Higgs particle was observed all these years.

So scientists tried to circumvent a real Higgs particle and present it as a kind of particle-like effect due to the interaction between all the other particles. This was indeed the case in solid state physics, where sometimes such dynamical symmetry breaking could be seen. But most scientists longed for a Higgs boson.

So, most of the developed countries contributed 10 billion dollars to build this large contraption underground near Geneva, where proton particles go in circles with a diameter of 17 miles, faster and faster, till they travel almost with the speed of light, and then two opposite streams collide and break up into many fragments, which are particles, old or new, with the possibility of a Higgs.

I remember when we were in school the news of the first ascent of the Everest by Sherpa Tenzing Norkay and Edmund Hillary (who gave the American ex-first lady her name) was held up for a couple of days until the day the new Queen of England Elizabeth II was crowned. The discovery of a particle 134 times the mass of a proton, which looked like the long-awaited Higgs, was announced on 4th July 2012.

Stephen Hawking is disappointed. He had a bet with a friend (only $100) that the Higgs would never be found, like a free quark. He is not alone. Dynamical symmetry breaking looks harder, but harder theories are more satisfying if they come out right in the end. One can then relapse into symbolic thinking like a true physicist instead of paying homage to a simple “God particle” named so by a publisher who probably did not even read Nobel laureate Lederman’s book, but found a catchy title for it using human psychology.

Let us wait and see what modest Higgs says in his Nobel lecture.

Ahmed Shafee is the Vice Chancellor of East West University.

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