I am endlessly baffled by modern society.
We have reality TV stars whose only talent is to shock and annoy, and yet inexplicably have millions of adoring fans. We also have sports superstars who get paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game they love, and yet they still get elevated to God-like status.
And then there’s Professor Peter Higgs, arguably the biggest science superstar of recent years.
The 83-year-old retired theoretical physicist was one of six scientists who, in the 1960s, assembled the framework behind the Higgs boson — the almost-unequivocally-discovered gauge particle that is theorized to carry the Higgs field, thereby endowing matter with mass. The theory behind the Higgs boson and all the high-energy physics experiments pursuing its existence culminated in a grand CERN announcement from Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday. With obvious emotion and nerves, lead scientist of the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector Joe Incandela announced what we’ve all been impatiently waiting for: “We have observed a new boson.”
So, we now have evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson — or a Higgs boson — to a high degree of statistical certainty, ultimately providing observational evidence for a critical piece of the Standard Model. This story began half a century ago with Prof. Higgs’ theoretical team, and it culminated on July 4, 2012, when results from a $10 billion particle accelerator were announced.
After the historic events of the last few days, one would think Peter Higgs would have been at least treated to a First Class flight back to his home in Scotland. But true to form, Higgs had other ideas:
Later, Higgs’s friend and colleague Alan Walker recounted the low-key celebration they held after learning of the breakthrough, one of the most important scientific discoveries of recent years.
Walker said he and Higgs were flying home from CERN in Geneva this week on budget airline easyJet when he offered Higgs a glass of Prosecco sparkling wine so they could toast the discovery.
Higgs replied: “‘I’d rather have a beer’ and popped a can of London Pride,” Walker said.
In a world where “celebrities” are hailed as superhuman, to hear that potential Nobel Prize candidate Peter Higgs took a budget airline home, after history had been made, typifies the humble nature of a great scientist and puts the world of celebrity to shame. Money and fame matters little to the people who are unraveling the fabric of the Universe.
On a different (yet related) note, Motherboard interviewed people on the streets of Brooklyn and asked them if they knew what the Higgs boson is. Most had never heard of it, let alone understood it (which, let’s face it, isn’t a surprise — many science communicators still have problems explaining the Higgs mechanism). But I wonder if the same group of people were asked if they knew what a “Snookie” was; I’m guessing they’d have no problem answering.
People may not read the news, but they sure have an innate knowledge of who’s in the gossip columns.