Thursday, July 05, 2012

Higgs boson: implication explicated, peer-review vindicated

The scientific and wider communities have been a-buzz with news of the discovery of what’s believed to be the elusive Higgs boson.

The search began almost 50 years ago in 1964 when Peter Higgs postulated his eponymous boson.

What’s not often appreciated is that the Higgs boson, as an ‘implication’ of particle physics, was considered so ‘completely obvious’ that it did not appear in the first draft of Peter Higgs’ 1964 paper. As Frank Close of Oxford University explained...

[I]n the first draft of the paper that Higgs wrote he didn’t even mention it, and the referee turned the paper down. And then Higgs thought, maybe I’d better think of some implications, and he added this extra implication which is now the boson.  So if the referee hadn’t turned the paper down, even Higgs might not have mentioned it.

Thus, the boson first appeared in the scientific literature almost as an afterthought, helped along by the lately-maligned peer review process.

Congratulations to Professor Higgs and to the LHC team at CERN on the occasion of this momentous leap forward.


More background...

Scientists had for years been working on understanding the building blocks of the universe — Higgs disagreed with them all, but he felt as if he were stuck. One day, on July 16, 1964, he read some new research papers.

“I looked at one, realised what it meant, and then jumped up and shouted out loud, 'Oh shit!’,” he said in an interview in 2008.

This moment doesn’t have the elegance of “Eureka!” but it shows the spark of creativity involved in his mental breakthrough. In a fever of excitement, Higgs spent the weekend walking the hills outside Edinburgh like a latter-day Wordsworth. “When I came back to work on Monday, I sat down and wrote a new paper as fast as I could,” he recalled.

The first paper was printed but ignored; the second was initially rejected. Pig-headedly, he went on, telling himself and others that they clearly hadn't understood it. In different parts of Europe, five other physicists were reaching the same conclusion. They worked in teams; Higgs was the only one working and publishing alone.


The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.



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