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.