Interview: Peter Higgs on coping with becoming the most famous theoretical physicist in the world

Professor Peter Higgs. Picture: Jane Barlow
Professor Peter Higgs. Picture: Jane Barlow
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AS THE lorry from down south trundled into Edinburgh on a dark night in 1949, the driver turned to his two young hitchhikers and told them they would have to get out now as he was not meant to be carrying passengers.

On board was 20-year-old physics student Peter Higgs from King’s College, University of London, and an old schoolfriend making their first visit to Scotland en route for the Highlands.

“We were left roughly at the end of Waterloo Place, what used to be the post office. It had taken us two days to get up to Edinburgh. The city was all lit up, it was the third Festival Fringe and very exciting. I was quite bedazzled. I thought, ‘This is a place I’d like to be,’” recalls Professor Higgs, giving a rare interview to The Scotsman in his home.

More than 60 years later, at a high-powered reception at the Scottish Parliament last week celebrating the work of Scottish researchers at the Large Hadron Collider, the £2.6bn Big Bang atom-smasher, a large group of eminent scientists, MSPs, television crews, students and researchers on a live video link-up from CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, anxiously awaited the arrival of the star turn – the shy and retiring Professor Higgs.

Higgs, 83, now the most famous theoretical physicist in the world, was in July thrust on to the world stage when Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced it had detected the existence of an elusive subatomic particle that the Edinburgh scientist had predicted almost half a century ago.

The quest to find the fabulously unstable particle – known outside scientific circles as ‘the God particle’ – which explains how the universe is held together and is given mass, was seen as one of the greatest challenges for scientists.

This time, instead of arriving in a lorry, Higgs, a quietly spoken and very private man, who is now fêted wherever he goes, had hopped on to a No 36 bus from George Street and had hoped to sneak into the parliament’s reception hall without a fuss.

But there was little chance of that. “There’s Peter Higgs”, “Peter Higgs is here!” – the word went round the hall like a Mexican wave. Some people grew 
shy and hung back as he walked up to the lectern to give a speech, wanting to see him but not wanting to be dragged into the limelight, the firmament, even for a second.

With his trademark understated wry humour and modesty, Higgs referred to the decades-long search for the Higgs boson, saying he and other theoreticians “were sorry to have put people to so much trouble”.

Higgs, who went to the University of Edinburgh as a senior research fellow in 1954 and returned as a lecturer in 1960, lives alone in a top-floor flat in the city’s New Town. His dark green and white sitting room with its 1970s time-capsule decor, complete with original Habitat furnishings, including a hanging Chinese paper lantern, is once more “on-trend” and, rather ironically, would be the dream location for a stylist from a glossy lifestyle magazine.

He does not have a television – his late wife, Jody, an American linguist, took it when the couple separated in the early 1970s, taking their sons, Chris and Jonny, with her, and he never bothered with a replacement. He recently bowed to pressure and bought a laptop but admits a one-hour tutorial from his friend and fellow scientist, Dr Alan Walker, left him “dazed”, and that it all “went in one ear and out the other”. But he is on the brink of getting a mobile phone.

Sitting in his black leather Mastermind chair, whose only drawback he say is its headrest, which “can make me fall asleep for several hours”, Professor Higgs muses on what it is like to have had his quiet academic life shifted into rock-star mode, at an age when many in his cohort are giving serious thought to winding down just a notch.

“It gets very tiring,” he says. “I try to limit the amount I do. If I accept an invitation like that one at the Scottish Parliament, I know there will be lots of photos to be taken. But in a way it’s been building up for years. Although the discovery claim was announced by Cern on July the 4th, the previous summer there had begun to be outbreaks of people wanting to interview me and recognising me in the street.

“In fact, the first interview I gave to the press was in 1987 when some people thought a previous machine at Cern, called LEP, might have enough energy to produce the particle.

“Now if I go shopping in Stockbridge or get the bus along to Waitrose in Comely Bank, someone might stop me and say, “Are you Peter Higgs?” and I say, “Yes, I am.” Then they usually say congratulations and shake my hand. I’m no longer surprised.”

Aside from the endless invitations and requests for his company, other manifestations of fame have ranged from numerous prestigious and academic awards, including being made a Companion of Honour in the 2013 New Year Honours, making a cameo appearance in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street, and having his handprints immortalised in Caithness stone in the quadrangle of Edinburgh City Chambers – only a stone’s throw away from where his maternal Scottish ancestors lived in Bank Street running a spirits business. Next month he is due to be jointly awarded the Edinburgh Medal, along with the director general of Cern, at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

But for a man who has his collection of art books neatly positioned near his black, leather-bound 
volumes of Gramophone and Sight & Sound magazine, it was having his portrait painted which cause a bit 
of consternation.

“The Ken Currie painting wasn’t flattering, but I didn’t expect flattery. A friend said, ‘He hasn’t captured your sense of humour’ But the problem I think is that the place it’s been put, on the landing at the James Clerk Maxwell building at King’s Buildings, makes me look quite intimidating, even to me,” he says with a wry smile.

But the gentle humour masks a man who has by his own admission “survived” the adversarial, gladiatorial arena of science, a world where those whose theories show flaws are soon put to the sword. For Higgs, the pivotal battle was in 1966 when he was invited to present his Broken Symmetries paper, which had originated two years earlier, at the Institute for Advanced Study, the establishment where Albert Einstein 
had spent his last years, at Princeton, New Jersey. 
Over the years reports have emerged that fellow physicists were determined to “rip him to shreds”, “usurp the imposter”.

Newcastle-born Higgs, who has a laser-sharp, forensic-style, almost second-for-second memory for events, recalls an attempt that was made to psyche him out before he started the most important talk of his life. He says: “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.”

Higgs’ Princeton presentation became legendary and sealed his reputation as a world-leading scientist – what was needed now was the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson itself.

At a more personal level, Higgs believes it was the intensity of his academic work which was a major factor in the breakdown of his marriage.

“I lost several years as a result of the break-up. Between 1972 and 1976 I really didn’t do much. I should have been following things up. It probably took me about five years to bounce back.”

These days, Higgs, who retired in 1996, keeps up with the latest physics journals and has an array of publications on a stand and table in his hallway. Placed alongside Scientific American is Private Eye, with its front-cover take on disgraced Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne. But he also has time to enjoy classical concerts at the Queen’s Hall, films at the Cameo and Filmhouse cinemas, and is a fan of novelist James Robertson.

However, one unexpected admission is that he thoroughly enjoys watching The Simpsons, having been introduced to the fictional subversive family from Springfield while on holiday with his grandchildren – Jo, 13, a second-year pupil at Boroughmuir High and Bonnie, 11, who is in her last year at Bruntsfield Primary in the city.

“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.”

Higgs also keeps an eye on current affairs, including the issue of Scottish independence: “I think the debate at the moment is largely bluffing on both sides. I still don’t know which way I’ll vote. But I think if Scotland breaks away it will be bad for the English because the spectrum of politics is a lot different from the south and Scotland balances middle England.”

But amusements and debate aside, Higgs is already thinking about his contingency plan if “Nobelistis” breaks out in the autumn.

“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,” says the elusive Professor Higgs.