The Infinity Puzzle

There’s a fascinating new book by Frank Close out this week about the history of the Standard Model, called The Infinity Puzzle. Until now I’ve always recommended The Second Creation, by Crease and Mann, as the best popular book for this history, but Close’s new book gives that one a run for its money. While Crease and Mann is a comprehensive overview, covering theory and experiment, as well as a longer time-frame, Close gives an insider’s look focused on the decade or so that led up to the Standard Model coming together around 1973.

Knowing the history of a subject has always seemed to me an integral part of really understanding it, so I’d argue that anyone who wants to really understand modern particle physics should spend some time with a book like this. In addition, there’s an outside chance we may soon be seeing the collapse of one of the central pillars of the Standard Model, the Higgs field, and if this happens, an understanding of where the Higgs came from may very well be relevant to anyone who wants to think about how to live without it.

About a year ago I spent some time looking into the history of what I think is best called the Anderson-Higgs mechanism, writing a long posting about it here. Particle physicists have long overlooked the fact that it was condensed matter theorist Philip Anderson who not only first understood the basic physics that was going on, but even wrote a paper aimed at explaining it to particle theorists (which they ignored). Anderson’s insights grew out of his work on the BCS theory of superconductivity, a subject in which the role of gauge invariance was not so easily understood. If the Higgs field needs to be replaced, the analogy with BCS theory might provide a clue about what could replace it. Another book I’ve been reading recently is a collection of Anderson’s essays, called More and Different: notes from a thoughtful curmudgeon. Many of the people and topics he discusses there are much less familiar to me, but I confess to enjoying the curmudgeonly tone, and wishing I knew more about the history and physics behind the superconductivity research that he describes. Included in his collection is a review of my book I was very pleased by. His prediction about what the LHC will see is one I’m very sympathetic to: no supersymmetry, and “we will probably discover unexpected complexity in the Higgs phenomenon.”

Anderson is justifiably scornful that the APS awarded the Dannie Heinemann prize [Anderson’s mistake, it was the J. J. Sakurai prize] for work on the Higgs to no less than seven [actually it was six] people, managing to leave out Anderson. Close gives Anderson his due, but also gives by far the most detailed and well-researched account available of the work of Higgs, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble in this area. He puts the most dramatic revelation from his research in a footnote (page 388):

A bizarre coincidence is that on Monday, October 5, just a week before Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble’s paper was received by the editor of Physical Review Letters in New York, and hence around the time that it would have been submitted to the journal, Peter Higgs gave a seminar about his mechanism at Imperial College. Neither Guralnik nor Kibble has any memory of this, and extensive correspondence between us has failed to shed light on this.

If the Higgs particle does show up at the LHC and the Nobel committee starts debating who should get the prize, this may become relevant. Another thing that I learned from Close that argues for Higgs in this context is that he was the first (in 1966) to write down a model with Yukawas giving masses to the fermions [Oops, this is wrong, my misunderstanding of a footnote that I didn’t check. It was the gauge boson masses being referred to].

Close knows especially well the British cast of characters in this story, and one issue he devotes attention to is the unusual story of J. C. Ward’s eventful career and the question of why Ward and Kibble [as well as Guralnik] weren’t the ones to come up with the Weinberg-Salam model. Ward and Salam had worked on unified electroweak theory, minus the Higgs, and Kibble was very much involved in the Higgs story. One of the factors at play according to Close’s account was Ward’s rather paranoid nature, which made him unwilling to share ideas.

Another Nobel-related part of the book that will likely be controversial is the discussion of Salam’s case for sharing the Nobel with Weinberg and Glashow. This topic recently was raised by Norman Dombey in a preprint on the arXiv (discussed a bit here), which refers to Close’s book. Close gives a detailed description of Salam’s activities around the time he was supposedly doing the Nobel Prize winning work, raising the possibility that he may not have had the right idea independently of Weinberg. One thing that is clear about this particular story though is that no one involved, including Weinberg and Salam, understood the significance of the Weinberg-Salam model at the time.

An argument might be made that the book has quite a lot of “inside baseball”, about who exactly did what, and what people’s relative cases for recognition might be. If you really detest this sort of thing and want nothing but the physics, maybe you should stick to The Second Creation. But, if like me, you’re fascinated by this history and want to learn something new about it, go out and get a copy soon.

Update: I should make it clear that what I wrote here about Salam is my own interpretation of the story, not that of Close. He explains that Salam learned about the Higgs mechanism from Kibble, and had a unified electroweak theory with Ward, so it makes perfect sense that he would come up with Weinberg-Salam, independently of Weinberg, and he was lecturing about something. Still, the lack of any written record of exactly what Salam had pre-Weinberg makes one wonder…

Update: For the first-hand case that Salam did lecture on the Weinberg-Salam model pre-Weinberg (which is also described in Close’s book) here’s this from Robert Delbourgo:

Dear Peter

There have been murmurs on your blog-site, following Dombey’s article I think, which cast doubt on Salam’s worthiness for the prize. I wish to refute the innuendos and aspersions which are circulating.

I was indeed present at the talks given by Salam on SSB for weak interactions where the famous model was described. Paul Matthews also attended, but being Oct that year, Tom Kibble was away on sabbatical at Rochester. I am prepared to take an oath on that.

It was more than one lecture, but I cannot remember whether it was two or three talks which he gave as it quite long ago. Then I went to the library and spotted Weinberg’s paper, newly arrived, and pointed it out to Salam and urged him to write up his own independent discovery ASAP. Matthews also encouraged him to do so and the first opportunity was the Nobel Symposium. That is the long and short of it.

I hope that ends the the rumours and controversy!!!

Bob Delbourgo

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22 Responses to The Infinity Puzzle

  1. I’ve read that Einstein considered The Einstein-Maxwell-Dirac System
    ~1930. Do you know who first considered The Einstein-Yang-Mills-Dirac

  2. Charles says:

    Like Dombey, Frank Close takes liberties with memories and diaries in several areas from a quick scan of this book and footnotes.

    For example, the IC seminar by Peter Higgs that you note may have taken place but not in October 1964. Not possible GHK would have skipped this as they were all there at this time – Kibble is particular would recall this. A person named Ray Streater organized the seminar at IC and he is unable to confirm the date of the session. This likely took place in 1965 – Hagen would have been back to Rochester by then but Guralnick and Kibble were still at IC.

    Just one example, where Close should be more careful with the facts – or at least how they are represented.

  3. William Tell says:

    “Knowing the history of a subject has always seemed to me an integral part of really understanding it, so I’d argue that anyone who wants to really understand modern particle physics should spend some time with a book like this.”
    You mean to say that extraterrestrial scientists will never really understand the SM physics?

  4. Peter Woit says:


    The information about Higgs’ talk is from Higgs’s diary, which Close has access to. Close notes in a postscript to the book that he found memories of the period sometimes in conflict with the written record, which is much more reliable. He encourages anyone with evidence that conflicts with what he has written to contact him.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    William Tell,

    Extraterrestrials will have their own history of how they found the Standard Model (or something like it…), and use that history to better understand it. They would undoubtedly benefit from access to our history, just as we would learn a lot if we knew theirs. If you can get ahold of an extraterrestrial history of how they developed their Standard Model, I for one really, really want to read it.

  6. There is a video-interview of Murray Gell-Mann about it. It is worth watching episodes 150-152, I think.

  7. Bernhard says:


    This was very interesting.

    Off-topic: By accident I saw also Gell-Mann´s comment on string theory. I knew he was sympathetic but when you hear him saying that Glashow “helped to spread the entirely wrong idea that superstring theory can never be tested” one really feels like asking him what is his exact idea on how to do that…

  8. Peter Woit says:


    Gell-Mann’s comments about Ward and Salam are quite interesting and relevant to the book. As for string theory, the video is from almost 15 years ago, at a time when enthusiasm was much higher. He may by now be more sympathetic to Glashow’s point of view. Enough about string theory though, a topic mercifully irrelevant to the book.

  9. Bernhard says:

    Sorry Peter, I couldn’t resist. But back to the point what I am a bit uncomfortable is that it seems these late accusations of Salam not being responsible for Salam-Weinberg is the fact that Salam is not here to respond these attacks. If this video is really from 15 years, than is from the time Salam died. I wonder if people confronted Salam with this when he had a chance to fight back.

  10. Peter Woit says:


    The video says it is from 1997, Salam died in 1996. So, yes, he couldn’t respond to Gell-Mann.

    Close explains in his book that people’s recollections of this era often diverge significantly from the written evidence he turned up. Although Salam and many others are not around, Salam’s papers are and I’m sure he kept whatever could document his case for a piece of Weinberg-Salam. Evidently the Nobel committee was convinced by what was sent to them, and at some point (50 years after the prize?) the nomination materials become public I think. Dombey and Close both had access to the nomination from Matthews, written by Salam. This one is a case for the historians of the future to work on, but my impression is that Close gives a fair account of the evidence he turned up, and he doesn’t seem to have an ax to grind here.

  11. Avattoir says:

    Can I just say, Peter, as someone who’s a professional with a number of academic degrees but quite limited capacities in math and interest but only incidental exposure to physics, the earlier post you link to her on the subject of who might the Nobel prize go to if the Higgs were to be found was the most fun one I’ve found here in the year I’ve been visiting; and it and this one too finally got me off my duff to order your book.

    So much for the fanboy part – but, though it’s an imposition that doesn’t actually demand a response, I wonder if you’ve read Louisa Gilder’s book on Entanglement, and if so what your thoughts are.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks, I hope you’ll enjoy my book. If you liked the kind of thing I was writing about the Higgs mechanism history, there’s a lot more of that in Close’s book.

    I haven’t read the Gilder book, although probably should have. It looks good, with an historical take on the subject that would be interesting. My interest in interpretational issues in quantum mechanics though is somewhat limited, and life is just too short to read everything one would like to.

  13. Charles says:

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Source is understood but likely not correct from place or topic which is unfortunate for the story and the book. More broadly, this footnote that you highlighted struck me as odd/interesting and seems to have a similar tone to Dombey’s article on Salam. In two papers in the last few years, Guralnik has stated how he learned of the other PRL submissions (and PA) when submitting the document for publication.

    As these links point out, after seeing pre-prints at IC of Higgs and Brout/Englert, GHK famously referenced them and also referred to a theory that was “partially solved” by BE and H (as you pointed out in related blog they did not reference Anderson). So again, I was just confused by what Close was getting at with this footnote.

    I have not completed the book but the other oddity is the selection of other “facts” and “contributions” that Close brings forward on this clearly charged topic of the “Higgs” mechanism. Some initial thoughts include…

    1) Again, for the footnote on page 388….is Close and Higgs trying to imply PH gave GHK the idea and in a matter of two days they wrote a paper that was considerably more complete than PH or BE – improving the concept by showing both the degrees of freedom and explicitly how the Goldstone theorem is avoided? Guralnik was working on topic with Gilbert back in Cambridge, MA in 1962 and 1963 and published an earlier paper (Phys. Rev. Lett. 13, 295 (1964)) which has the basis of the GHK approach to the mechanism (submission date precedes the others) so that is a hard case to make (if he is trying to put that implicitly in the reader’s head).

    2) The 1966 PH paper that FC puts great stock in, writes down some terms that contribute to higher order corrections to the leading approximation given in the PRL papers. This is fairly trivial and represents little new insight or any surprise to anyone who does quantum field theory. Not completely sure Close’s background or understanding on these points. Prior to this ’66 PH paper, there was a similar contribution by GG who gave a talk in 1965 containing detail beyond that contained in any of the PRL submissions (see

    3) Similarly, the follow-up paper by TK (Phys Rev 155, 1554 (1967)) is considered by most (even TK) to be a minor extension to the 1964 GHK paper and FC puts a lot of weight in that contribution also – more than the larger physics community.

    4) When discussing the naming of the mechanism and Nobel politics he does not mention t’Hooft and his role. In their Nobel winning paper, t’Hooft and Veltman reference all three PRL papers and even refer to the mechanism as the “Higgs-Kibble mechanism” ( Since winning the Nobel, t’Hooft has removed credit from the GHK team and pushed hard for a BEH award…and I am sure written letters to the Swedish Academy. As I have posted here before, t’Hooft feels many Europeans have been ignored for Nobel Prizes and sees the “Higgs” story as an opportunity to partially fix past snubs.

    So as I read a footnote that seems to be false, it was odd that important items from this story that can be more easily verified by papers and lectures were omitted. It is difficult to deal in half-truths on this topic. Not being able to get the organizer (Streater) of the seminar at IC to confirm the date or clarify the point of the footnote leads me to believe it was somewhat careless (at best) or intentionally false (at worst) in order to help PH’s or someone else’s case in this “game of credit”. FC may have felt he lost the personal side if he relied more on the papers but these two extremes could have probably been better combined better for this topic. Again, the similar in tone (as you said:” curmudgeon”) to Dombey and Salam is notable.

    Will circle back after I complete book and do more research .

    Again, Happy Thanksgiving

  14. O Zapata says:

    Dear William Tell,

    Peter’s opinion coincides with that of Aristotle; don’t forget, the most important physicist for almost two millennia:

    “If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”

    This was valid for the physics of the Presocratics as it is today to understand the fundamental issues behind modern theoretical physics (“what if there is no Higgs?”). Another quote, more controversial, this time by a modern particle physicist:

    “Finally, learn something about the history of science,or at a minimum the history of your own branch of science. The least important reason for this is that the history may actually be of some use to you in your own scientific work. For instance, now and then scientists are hampered by believing one of the oversimplified models of science that have been proposed by philosophers from Francis Bacon to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The best antidote to the philosophy of science is a knowledge of the history of science.”


  15. teeth says:

    Another quote from Aristotle worth remembering, to gauge the measure of his wisdom: “Women have more teeth than men because they talk more.”

  16. iwanna prize says:

    Scornful of the award of the Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics to seven people, leaving out Anderson?

    The web page of the DH Prize says no such thing

    Wiki even tells the 2012 winner to be Jona-Lasinio

    Perhaps Anderson is scornful of the J J Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.
    The award in 2010 was to six people (not seven samurai), but no Anderson in any case.
    And the 2012 prizewinners are listed by Wiki

    Anderson is being hypocritical. He wants a piece of a prize for theoretical particle physics? Anderson has long opposed HEP in toto. Anderson wrote a NY Times op-ed article opposing the SSC. Anderson may have written a book review of NEW, but I have heard Anderson lecture before, and what he would really like is NEHEP.

  17. spin says:

    Hey “iwanna prize”:

    Like it or not, it was a condensed-matter theorist who first figured out the now so-called “Higgs” mechanism. Who says that he cannot win a prize for theoretical particle physics. He’s probably smarter than most of them.

    I can’t help thinking that if the high-energy people gave Anderson his due credit at that time, maybe later on he would not so oppose the SSC and everything related.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    iwanna prize,

    Thanks for the corrections re Anderson’s non-prize, he has this wrong in his book, but it’s clear he’s referring to the Sakurai prize.

  19. prizewinning says:

    Awarding prizes is a very subjective thing. Many if not most prize awards are controversial. The memory of the award of the Nobel Prize to Kobayashi and Maskawa and omitting Cabibbo is probably still fresh in people’s minds. And this was not even cross-disciplinary HEP/condensed matter. Any award of a prize for the “Higgs” (choose any other name you like) mechanism, and/or discovery, will almost certainly be heavily criticized. BTW Anderson already won the Dannie Heineman prize in 1975.

    However, it was the DH prize awarded by the Gottingen Academy of Science. It is awarded every two years and is a sister prize to the APS award, which is the Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics. As the web page also states “Since winning his Nobel honors, Anderson has used his public platform to speak out against the “Star Wars” military missile program, and against federal funding for a proposed $8B superconducting supercollider in Texas.” It is a matter of record that Anderson was one of the most prominent condensed matter physicists who thought that termination of the SSC would cause the $8B to flow into funding for condensed matter physics. The truth is that after the SSC was terminated, there were across-the-board cuts in many areas of science funding. Basically, “if the HEP community can absorb an $8B loss to their program, then you can also absorb a sacrifice of $1B (or whatever) to your program”.

    As for Salam, the whole discussion seems silly. The award of the Nobel to Salam did not deprive anyone else. Awarding the prize to Salam did not detract from the merits of Weinberg. Murray Gell-Mann put in a good word for Glashow, and Glashow deserves his share of the prize, too.

  20. J says:

    A side note to Charles’s comment about t’Hooft’s role in the Higgs crediting:

    indeed, I recently attended a public lecture by t’Hooft on particle physics and standard model (for the general public). The ppt page on the Higgs mechnism listed only three names, i.e. Higgs, and Brout-Englert.

  21. anonymous says:

    Related link from National Post highlighting the Nobel Prize issues and The Infinity Puzzle book by Frank Close discussed here.

  22. Anonyrat says:

    One possible lesson from Frank Close’s narration is that the ideas that prove to be correct are often born with no seeming connection with experimental reality – it can take decades for that to happen.

    Another possible lesson from the same book is that those ideas languish in minor modest obscurity and are not hyped, until their day comes, when they do connect up to reality.

    If string theory is as successful some day as Glashow-Weinberg-Salam-ABEGHHK’tH etc, presumably it will be because they stop making TV programs about it.

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