Transcript from an interview with Peter Higgs

Interview with Peter Higgs on 6 December 2013 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Could you describe your Nobel Prize awarded work for young students?

Peter Higgs: Imagine a snowfield, and that is an analogous to this background field throughout all the universe, this affects the way that people crossing it in different ways depending on whether they wear skis or snowshoes or just boots. The analogy is then that the people with skis relatively unaffected and untroubled with high high speed, people with snowshoes do not quite so well and the people who just wear boots go very slowly and that analogy is with the effect on some kind of particles which continue to travel this speed of light and the massless and what happens to particles which are heavier, but to me that contains less of the physics than my more roundabout explanation.

Can you explain the standard model?

Peter Higgs: The work which was done in 1964 led to the so called electroweak theory, the unification of weak and electromagnetic interactions in elementary particles which was done in 1967 by Weinberg and Salam by taking a theory, which had the right kind of unification but couldn’t produce good calculations due to Glashow, and combining it with the kind of models of symmetry breaking which we had discussed in -64. That was the beginning of the standard model, because once that theory was shown to be mathematically sound, that you could really calculate with it, people started to study other kinds of so-called gauge theory in relation to the other forces in particle physics and those investigations led on to a theory of the strong forces, called quantum chromodynamics. So the work in -64 was the beginning of the return of this kind of so-called quantum field theory in particle physics. It had previously been successful in the 50s, quantum electrodynamics, and then became neglected in particles that didn’t seem to work and what we did was a step on the way to making it work.

At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?

Peter Higgs: It wasn’t a precise moment. The way in which I came to this realisation was that I was trying to evade a theorem which had been proved about this way of breaking symmetries in particle physics which implied that there would exist massless particles without spin. This theorem made this kind of theory unacceptable because such particles were not known. The theory in which these occurred had been formulated four years earlier by Yoichiro Nambu who got a share of the 2008 prize and Jeffrey Goldstone and it was really for me a matter of realizing that the theorem as proved had a flaw in it, there were certain mathematical axioms which you need to prove any kind of theorem which certain kinds of theory of fields didn’t obey. And the prime example of the kind of field which didn’t obey these axioms was Maxwell’s electromagnetic field as it occurs in quantum electrodynamics.

Quantum electrodynamics is a theory which doesn’t involve this phenomenon of symmetry breaking but once it was clear that there were fields of the maximal type which didn’t obey the axioms, then the way was opened to introducing these fields of this type into the kind of theory which Nambu started of symmetry breaking and that’s essentially what happened to me over a weekend during which I gradually realised that I knew two things which had to be brought together. It was related to the fact that I had read papers not long before by Julian Schwinger who was one of the people who shared the quantum electrodynamics prize and that was -65 I think. He had a way of formulating that theory which was a little bit different from what most people preferred. It resulted in some equations which were explicitly  violating, apparently violating the rules of Einstein relativity theory but the physics was not affected by this, it was just a peculiarity of the formal mathematics and so it was my recollection of equations written by Julian Schwinger which made me see that this was what had to be done. But it was a process which wasn’t sudden, it was during the weekend and I had to go back to my office on the Monday and check that I hadn’t made a mistake about this.

Who is your role model, and why?

Peter Higgs: In my high school days I didn’t find the physics that I was taught very interesting. I was better at mathematics and chemistry, my scientific subjects, and I was quite enthusiastic about chemistry, understanding the structure of matter of the molecular level. Gradually I came to know that there were deeper levels and that these were classified as physics and there were interesting things to do in theoretical physics there. One of the influences on me which probably a former pupil at the same school of about a quarter of a century earlier, Paul Dirac, who was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics in the mid-1920’s, and I was curious about what he had done because his name appeared frequently on the roll call of the achievements of former pupils. I was curious and that led me to read about atomic physics and quantum theory before I was ever taught them.

The only other thing perhaps to add about influences in my days at high school was that at the end of my time there, it was very soon after the end of the war and the dropping of the bombs on Japan. I went to some public lectures in the University of Bristol organized by the two professors of physics, one theoretician and one experimentalist. These were lectures for the public to tell them what was the background of the development of these bombs and it was a great success series of lectures. The experimental physicist was Cecil Powell who worked in experimental particle physics, in those days it involved sending packages of photographic emulsion up into the upper atmosphere with the help of balloons, and he decided to give some lectures about his own work which I then went to when I learned from him a lot about the current state of experiment in particle physics and that helped me to see what I wanted to do.

What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?

Peter Higgs: When the Prize was announced I wasn’t at home and that was deliberate, I wasn’t trying to avoid the people from the Nobel Foundation or the Academy, but I was trying to avoid media attention which I expected would follow very rapidly. So I made sure to go out at 11 in the morning with the expectation that the announcement would be maybe 11.30 or something like that and I also went down to the harbor area Edinburgh for a lunch, went to an art exhibition and came back home at about 3 o’clock and I was told the news first by a former neighbor who stopped her car which overtook me as I was walking home and came across the street and said “Congratulations, my daughter phoned me from London to tell me about the award” and I said “what award?”. She gave me the answer I expected so I then went home and listened to my phone messages.

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