Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Higgs, the god particle and me...

It has been reported in the media that the well-known TV comedian and actor Eric Sykes has died. I have always found the obsession with celebrity culture and the attention the media pay to the lives of celebrities vaguely embarrassing, but today will not go down in history as the day a TV personality died. No, the 4th July 2012 will be remembered for the announcement made by the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that after spending over six billion pounds on the largest scientific apparatus ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the much discussed Higgs boson has finally been detected. Seeing the photos of the reclusive Peter Higgs breaking down in tears and seeking to turn attention away from himself took me back to 1988. I was then an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and would sit in the common room of the James Clerk Maxwell Building each morning with my flat mate, who was studying physics and another friend I attended my mathematics lectures with, sipping coffee and chatting between lectures. Sometimes a middle aged academic who often wore a black polo neck top would sit across the table from us never speaking. I once asked my flatmate, “Who is that guy?” and was told it was Professor Higgs. Apparently, he had postulated the existence of a new particle sometime in the sixties. Twenty-four years have passed, my flatmate went on to do nuclear physics at CERN, my other friend dropped science and is now a top hedge fund manager and I…well, I didn’t go on to either of those things. Why should it be that I remember this as if it had some significance? Peter Higgs is now justly famous for his contribution to the scientific enterprise and I suppose me remembering being ignored by a famous physicist is even more ridiculous than people remembering seeing, speaking with or being sat next to any other celebrity, yet I do remember it. Does the fact that Higgs really is a great man whose name will live for centuries to come make any difference? Not at all. Ideas are sometimes much bigger than the people who have them and perhaps we should spend more time focusing on the development of our own ideas, however apparently insignificant, rather than try to live vicariously through some vague association with celebrity or someone else’s achievements.

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