On Tuesday morning, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs, for monumental theories that helped to solidify and confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. (Essentially, the explanation for how everything in the universe is built from the ground up.) Higgs, of course, you might recognize as the namesake of the Higgs boson, a particle first theorized way back in 1964 and confirmed earlier this year by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider. Although Englert developed the same theories independently of Higgs and at nearly the same time, it is Higgs whose name will forever be immortalized by the notorious "God particle," a nickname he never liked that much.
While Englert appeared at the Nobel press conference by phone, Higgs was notably absent at today's announcement. Higgs, who is almost as elusive as his particle, won't be showing his face or making any kind of appearance today, and may not even make an appearance at formal awarding ceremony later December. According to The New York Times, "Dr. Higgs — the J. D. Salinger of physics — has already let it be known that he will not be available in any form on Tuesday. But if you believe the oddsmakers, the news media and the self-appointed prognosticators, Dr. Higgs is a lock to join the immortals on Tuesday." The Nobel Committee was not even able to reach him by phone on Tuesday to tell him that he won.
So, in the absence of any new quotes or insights from Higgs, we dug up some old statements, both by and about him, that shed some light on his career, his monumental (yet tiny) discovery, and that silly "God particle" name.
On winning the Nobel Prize
The Scotsman, February 2013:
“The Nobel Prize has been a disturbance at the beginning of October for some years. It would be gratifying to win, but it would be quite an ordeal too, with all the events which go on for two days. I’d think carefully about what I was doing the day it is announced and maybe not be around, or be around, but elsewhere.”
The Guardian, 2007:
Higgs's theory showed that mass was produced by a new type of field that clings to particles wherever they are, dragging on them and making the heavy. Some particles find the field more sticky than others. Particles of light are oblivious to it. Others have to wade through it like an elephant in tar. So, in theory, particles can weigh nothing, but as soon as they are in the field, they get heavy.
On Higgs's skeptics
The Guardian, October 2013:
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.
The Scotsman, on a presentation Higgs gave at Princeton in 1966:
“The way it happened, the talk I had to give was preceded by one by Freeman Dyson – one of the important figures in quantum electrodynamics. I was very much in awe of him. Between his talk and mine, there was a break for tea. During the break I talked with a young German theorist. He said to me, ‘Do you know what you are going to talk about must contain a mistake? This has been proved by completely vigorous examination.’ Not the right encouragement for people who are about to give a talk. I’d written something they couldn’t believe could be done. [But] I survived. I learnt afterwards I’d convinced the leader of the group.”
On the Higgs boson's nickname, "the God particle"
The BBC, 2013:
"That name was a kind of joke, and not a very good one. An author, Leon Lederman, wanted to call it 'that goddamn particle' because it was clear it was going to be a tough job finding it experimentally. His editor wouldn't have that, and he said 'okay, call it the God particle', and the editor accepted it. I don't think he should've have done, because it's so misleading."
The Guardian, 2007:
"I have to explain to people it was a joke. I'm an atheist, but I have an uneasy feeling that playing around with names like that could be unnecessarily offensive to people who are religious."
On The Simpsons:
“I’m a great admirer of The Simpsons. It’s very surprising because it’s backed by a right-wing television company in the US, and quite often it’s poking fun at the people who would be its audience.”