There is much more to the Higgs boson’s history than simply one individual called Higgs. Despite the popularity of the “lone genius” myth, it is uncommon for a single scientist to be fully responsible for a scientific discovery. Physicist and novelist Frank Close’s biography of Peter Higgs, Elusive, first seems to support this erroneous story. The subtitle of the book is “How Peter Higgs solved the mass conundrum.”
But the book rapidly — and appropriately — deviates from this course as it explores the theoretical twists and turns that sparked a decades-long search for the particle known as the Higgs boson, culminating in its 2012 discovery (SN: 7/28/12, p. 5). This discovery confirmed the process through which particles acquire mass. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh performed a vital part in determining the origins of mass, although he was just one of many contributions.
The book observes that the typically humble and attention-averse Higgs argues against himself as the only genius behind the discovery. According to Higgs, “my real contribution consisted only of a crucial revelation towards the conclusion of the novel.”
The Higgs boson itself does not provide mass to basic particles. Instead, the particle’s finding validated a hypothesis developed by Higgs and others. According to this theory, fundamental particles acquire mass by interacting with a field that permeates all of space and is now known as the Higgs field.
The 1964 article by Higgs was not the first to suggest this procedure. Robert Brout and Francois Englert, both physicists, narrowly surpassed him. And shortly after Higgs, another team of academics presented the identical concept (SN: 11/2/13, p. 4). Important foundation had previously been provided by other scientists, and the work of Higgs was continued by others. Higgs was the one who made the crucial observation that the mass mechanism suggested the presence of a new, massive particle, which might prove the theory.
Despite this confusing background, scientists have given his name not just to the particle, the Higgs boson, but also to the mechanism underlying it, which was once known as the Higgs mechanism, but is now known as the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism. Physicists Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble, and ‘t Hooft allegedly suggested naming it the “ABEGHHK’tH mechanism” using the initial letter of their surnames. The postmortem of how Higgs’ name rose to prominence is one of the most fascinating portions in Elusive, revealing a great deal about the scientific sausage-making process and how things may go haywire. Equally intriguing is the description of how the media welcomed Higgs as a giant of physics due to his affiliation with the boson, elevating him to an uncomfortable and undeserved degree of renown.
The book deftly addresses the complexity of the Brout-Englert-Higgs process and how particles acquire mass, including elements that are often skimmed over in popular interpretations. Close does not avoid physics-specific words such as “perturbation theory,” “renormalization,” and “gauge invariance.” The more difficult sections are best suited for amateur physicists who want a deeper knowledge, and it may be necessary to reread them before they sink in.
Higgs is notoriously not a favorite of the spotlight; on the day he earned the Nobel Prize for his work on mass, he withdrew for many hours. The physicist also sometimes appears to recede into the background of this book, with entire pages passing without his presence or participation. As soon as the scientific world became aware of the prospect of a new particle, the concept took on a life of its own, with experimental physicists in the forefront. Beyond his first revelation, which he describes as “the sole really unique notion I’ve ever had,” Higgs made little additions to the topic.
Thus, the novel sometimes seems like a biography of a Higgs-particle, with the human playing a supporting role. Higgs is so cautious and secluded that it seems that Close has not yet figured him out. While intriguing facts of Higgs’ life and interests, such as his vehement opposition to nuclear weapons, are disclosed, deeper insights are lacking. Higgs, like the particle he was named after, is ultimately elusive.