Peter Higgs: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that”

The Guardian has an interesting piece about Peter Higgs, evidently their reporter talked to him on his way to the Nobel Prize ceremonies this week in Stockholm. Higgs will be speaking tomorrow (Sunday), and I’m curious to hear what he will have to say. His talk will be available live at the Nobel Prize website.

Higgs points out that the kind of work he was awarded the prize for was done in an environment that no longer exists:

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

By the time he retired in 1996, he was glad to be out of academia:

After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.

Higgs has definitely not been a careerist sort, turning down a knighthood in 1999:

I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.

He thinks he likely would have been fired by his university back in the 1980s if there hadn’t been a prospect of him getting a Nobel.

The work Higgs did in 1964 was on a rather unpopular topic. At the time the reigning ideology was “S-matrix theory”, which argued that local quantum field theory was a hopeless subject, so one should be working on formulating basic physics just in terms of S-matrix amplitudes, using their holomorphicity properties (this idea has had somewhat of a comeback in recent years). The 1960s however was a time of a great expansion in the number of university positions, so people like Higgs could make a career despite working on unpopular topics.

Progress in particle theory slowed dramatically after the early 1970s. One reason for this of course has been the huge success of the Standard Model, as well as the inherent difficulties involved in getting experimental access to higher energy scales. One wonders though whether the post-1970 collapse of the HEP theory job market and very different environment that ensued might have had something to do with this. As Higgs himself is well-aware, if he had come along 10 years later, he would not have found a job in the field.

In the UK today, things seem to be getting even worse, with strong pressures from the government to only fund work likely to have an immediate economic payoff. For more about this, see this commentary at Physicsfocus by Philip Moriarty on The Spirit-Crushing Impact of Impact. The UK has just announced the founding of a new Higgs Centre for Innovation, to be built in Edinburgh and opened in 2016. It will be devoted though not to the kind of research Higgs had success with, but to “big data” and “space”, considered by the government to be among the most promising technologies for the future. It’s rather ironic that Higgs is the sort of scientist who would not be employable by the Higgs Centre.


Update
: For the acceptance speech by Higgs, see here, and see here for an official interview. For a different point of view, from one of the experimenters who made the award to Higgs possible, see here.

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17 Responses to Peter Higgs: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that”

  1. Benni says:

    Peter woit wrote:
    “It will be devoted though not to the kind of research Higgs had success with, but to “big data” and “space” [...]. It’s rather ironic that Higgs is the sort of scientist who would not be employable by the Higgs Centre.”

    I think this is a bit strange characterization of Higgs. Actually, Higgs worked on quantum gravity in his early years. See for example this paper: http://prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v1/i10/p373_1

    The site: http://www.edition-open-access.de/sources/5/3/index.html notes that: Peter Higgs too had been part of Hermann Bondi’s Relativity and Gravitation group at King’s College, London, since 1956. It was Pirani who urged him to take more interest in quantum gravity, prompting him to take up the position at the IOFP. Though invited to the institute to study gravitation, Peter Higgs ruefully admits that he spent his time there working on symmetry breaking in quantum field theory.15 Higgs first encountered Bryce DeWitt in 1959, in Royamont France. This was the second GRG conference16, and it was shortly after that the International Committee on General Relativity and Gravitation was formed (see Kragh [11], p. 362). He met him again at the GRG3 conference in Warsaw, in 1962. After 1956, following Pirani’s advice, Higgs began looking at quantum gravity – at the time he was working with Abdus Salam at Imperial College. Here he wrote on the constraints in general relativity. This led, in 1964, to DeWitt’s invitation to Higgs to spend a year at the institute, which he did, arriving in September 1965, after a year’s postponement. Bahnson died tragically in an airplane crash the year prior on June 3, 1964 – a chair was established at UNC in his honour, to be occupied by Bryce DeWitt.

  2. Benni says:

    It is perhaps for the above reason, that Higgs has to say the following on the Higgs center, according to your link: “Prof Higgs, 84, said: “This support from the Treasury and the STFC will create an environment in which future generations of scientists from around the world can share and develop ideas in theoretical physics.”

    Surely, Higgs would not promote the Higgs center with that words, if it did something that Higgs does not approve of. It is generally consensus that astrophysics, general relativity, quantum gravity and mathematical physics are the fields where physics can still make some advance. Higgs hat a professorship for mathematical physics in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the number of chairs with that topic, in europe is almost zero. The few chairs that exist are highly competitive and someone like Higgs, who contributes very deep but also very few papers would have almost no chance.

  3. I certainly understand where Prof. Higgs is coming from. I published my first paper in my last undergraduate year and then I joined a small and prolific group which was publishing a paper every month. Then I came to US to get my PhD and I began questioning the value doing this incremental busy work which kept me from thinking on really deep problems. After graduation I left academia and started working in the industry where I have a successful career. In the meantime I kept thinking on hard problems and the effort payed off. Then I tried to come back thinking that if I had a very promising domain and nice results everyone would appreciate them, but surprise, surprise, there is a large background crackpot noise you need to break through. Basically you need to accumulate credibility, play the game, and (re)build your network and reputation.

    It was lucky for Professor Higgs to make his discovery while in academia, because nobody would have taken him seriously if he was on the outside. On the outside the silence is deafening.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Benni,

    It’s hard to tell without more detail, but the “space” research to be supported by the Higgs Innovation Centre appears to be space technology with commercial applications, not quantum gravity research. In any case, while Higgs supports this and lends his name to it, that doesn’t mean they’re any more likely to hire him than academia would be, and he makes clear his view about his chances there.

  5. Chris W. says:

    Compare with Kenneth Wilson.

  6. MathPhys says:

    “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it.”

    ha ha ha that was really funny. I think that’s how many of us will feel as well.

    PS I met Peter Higgs in 1985 went I attended a summer school in Edinburgh. A quiet, mild-mannered man. It was the first time that many of the students at the school, and probably even some of the lecturers, realized that there is actually a man behind the name that we all learnt in class and went for a handshake and chat with him. He was very kind, approachable, unassuming and obliged us all. He didn’t patronize us. There was no posturing.

    Meeting Francois Englert was also very good but in a different way that I’d rather not get into here.

  7. Gordon says:

    There are lots of us older academics that wouldn’t have got a job today- or maybe more likely we would have played today’s game. What is unfortunate is that Higgs’ point about “productivity” is valid and can be a major barrier to some forms of research unless hidden in a fog of salami publication (and mixed metaphors).

  8. Steven Chan says:

    While all folks in academia do need to publish something, but the number of publiciations should not be the single most important benchmark. Writing good paper take months, and I think one first-authored paper every year or every other year should be considered enough.

    You said I should avoid politics, but short-termism isn’t just a science problem. It is a political and financial disease that infected science. We are just being affected by a much wider-scale problem.

  9. Eric says:

    Higgs may also have the lowest h-index of any Nobel winner. He was right topic, right time…and very lucky.

    The other five credited with the theory seemed to have done well in academia.

  10. Eric says:

    @MathPhys

    This sounds very interesting…do tell.

    “Meeting Francois Englert was also very good but in a different way that I’d rather not get into here”

  11. Ike says:

    Here’s what the reality looks like; Currently if you are a postdoc in the US seeking for a faculty position and have less number of publications compared to most of your colleagues, you cannot go forward!. The naked and widely known fact is that when you apply for a faculty position with less than 15 -20 papers, you cannot even pass the first stage and will be eliminated automatically. If you want to get a life and a permanent position, publish more often, if necessary divide one project into as many sub-publication as you can, publish even more, so they’d look nice on you CV or on google scholar website…

  12. S. Molnar says:

    Perhaps slightly off-topic in a narrow sense, but another Nobel prizewinner makes a related complaint against the big science journals, also reported in the Grauniad: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott-science-journals.

  13. MH says:

    Higgs: ‘because of the expectations on academics to collaborate’

    Reminds me of what Dijkstra (Turing award 1972) said in 1994:

    In the wake of the Cultural Revolution and now of the recession I observe a mounting pressure to co-operate and to promote “teamwork”. For its anti-individualistic streak, such a drive is of course highly suspect; some people may not be so sensitive to it, but having seen the Hitlerjugend in action suffices for the rest of your life to be very wary of “team spirit”. Very. (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Dijkstra)

  14. Doomed Mathematician says:

    I wish I knew this before going to graduate school….

  15. steve says:

    “He was very kind, approachable, unassuming and obliged us all. He didn’t patronize us. There was no posturing”. That’s very much the Higgs I remember, being a student at Edinburgh in the 80s. I’m surprised to learn though that the university considered firing him at one point since I always though he had a depth that no-one else quite had. It came across when he lectured with frequent side applications or subtle points that showed he really knew the stuff. His elegant solutions to homework problem got straight to the heart of the matter and that’s what his famous paper did too. It is good to see him speak out now about modern academia which seems to work against lone researchers. It’s a bit like the 1976 movie ‘Rollerball’ whereby “…the game was designed to show the futility of individual effort…” And yes, it is ironic that he would not get hired now by the institute to be named after him. Others like a young K. Wilson probably wouldn’t be hired now either, and if Von Neumann was alive today he would probably be a hedge fund manager:)

  16. anon says:

    Here are some questions that I would ask Dr. Woit and others.

    (1) Would all of you agree that the prospects for future graduate students in mathematics or physics to pursue research in their fields is poor? Do any of you foresee this situation to improve in the future, or to further deteriorate?

    (2) If you met a student who is thinking of pursuing graduate studies in mathematics or physics, would you consider discouraging him/her from doing so, and maybe instead direct them to more “applied” fields (e.g. engineering, medicine, statistics, computer science, etc.)?

    (2)

  17. Peter Woit says:

    anon,
    The situation in math is much better than physics. Even in math, getting a permanent position at a research insitution is difficult, but it’s much easier than in theoretical physics. I don’t have any problem encouraging students to get a Ph.D. in math, since there are some reasonable academic job prospects. Theoretical physics is a different story, there students do need to be made aware of how awful the job situation is (and will be for the forseeable future).

    As for applied subjects, I would guess job prospects depend a lot on the exact field, but I’m not well-informed about what is happening in different fields. People should be aware that claims of an “STEM shortage” are nonsense, so if they go into some applied STEM field expecting jobs to be plentiful they probably will be disappointed.

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