Thank You Peter H

July 6, 2012

There are several reasons to be grateful to Peter Higgs. First, he wrote these very cool and extremely important papers in 1964. Second, he is a really nice and modest chap, and we could do with more of those in Physics. Now there is a third reason – he seems to have unlocked the University purse strings. The University of Edinbrr has announced that it will create the “Higgs Centre of Theoretical Physics”. There was a news conference today with Peter in Old College. There will be two academic positions in short order, eventually a Higgs Chair, and money for visiting scholars and so on. As I am not so much in the university committee loop these days, I am not sure how much is new money and how much is a re-labelling, but probably the real importance is that it gives a focus for fundraising. In fact you can donate a fiver now if you like. There is already 20 quid from random punters ! Marvelous.

The positive vibes from the whole Higgs Mania has been marvelous to watch. The media have by and large taken it very seriously – there has been very little of the “and now here’s a science story you won’t understand ! larf larf” kinda stuff. Basically the angle has been “history in the making”. Of course TV and papers are much happier with human angles. Its hard to form a narrative around symmetry breaking and so forth. So, even though it never suited Peter’s modesty, hanging the story around him made great sense. It wasn’t just a PR angle; clearly the whole particle physics community felt the historical resonance, and other breeds of physicist like myself found it cheering it watch.

Now it gets interesting because its so boring. Check out this interesting blog post by Stephen Wolfram. Finding the Higgs Boson is the crowning triumph of the Standard Model – but it highlights the fact that there have been no surprises for thirty five years. (Or rather, the surprises have all been in observational astrophysics…)  The theory doesn’t really explain stuff, just summarises it. And it has no idea what to do with gravity, the cosmological constant, or dark matter. We have the data. What we need is some serious THINKING here.

What a perfect time to set up a Centre for Theoretical Physics.

Durham ahead of the game

May 1, 2008

Yesterday I was at the fifth anniversary celebration for the Durham Ogden Centre. Maybe Carlos Frenk knows something we don’t, cos the Ogden Centre web page says that “ongoing support is provided by PPARC”. Of course, Carlos is on the Wakeham panel, so maybe the plan is to re-invent PPARC. Durham have got the new web page ready, but released it too early ? Or… they haven’t changed the web page for eighteen months … surely not.

Anyhoo… it was a splendid afternoon, with a series of excellent review talks on cosmology and particle physics by Carlos himself, Silvia Pascoli, Shaun Cole, Nigel Glover, and Martin Ward. The room was crammed full of PPA types. Guess what the main topic of conversation was at coffee time ? It wasn’t the Higgs Boson. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be anyone there from STFC.

My favourite moment was when Arnold Wolfendale asked Carlos a tricky question, which produced an uncharacteristically long pause in the Frenk flow of speech. Finally he said, “I think you should all know that when I was interviewed for my lectureship in Durham in 1985, Arnold asked me the same question. Well, Arnold, the answer is still the same …”