The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, August 13, 2012

When the Force really is with you

It's not every day you get to shake hands with someone whose name will be remembered on the starships. Today I did, unexpectedly. Participants in the Edinburgh International Book Festival can choose up to ten free tickets. One of mine was for Frank Close on his new book The Infinity Puzzle, about the search for the Higgs Boson. I sat down in the packed-out Scottish Power Theatre tent, and saw on the screen that the event was to be chaired by Peter Higgs.

Chaired! By Peter Higgs!

In reality, of course, nothing of the sort took place. The session was introduced by the Festival Director, Nick Barley, who made it very clear how amazing this was. Frank Close outlined the physics, conducted a free-wheeling interview with Professor Higgs, then caught and passed on questions from the audience.

While this was going on I tried to figure out just why the tent was so packed and I was so excited. Like everyone in else in the entire world (obviously) I'd spent the morning of July 4th watching the live feed from the Cern press conference and tweeting madly about it. It was the best Big Science white-knuckle ride until the Curiosity landing last week. But in reality, what I know about physics could be written in biro on the back of my hand, and probably was at some point because I passed the first year physics exam at Glasgow University, albeit on the resit.

I stopped believing physics lectures when they got to electricity. That bit about holes moving where electrons could be but aren't? It might as well have been the poetry of Ezra Pound for all the sense I could make of it. Quantum mechanics? Relativity? I know the Standard Model works and I don't doubt for a moment that it's true to a trillion decimal places and explains, as Close said, 'seven percent of everything' (the rest being dark matter and all that) but there I walk by GPS and not by sight.

And, judging by the questions from the floor, I'm far from alone in this. But we were all thrilled to be there and I think I know why. We were in the presence of a man who has deservedly become the icon of understanding this stuff, and who advanced an idea about something so fundamental to the fabric of reality that we have to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang to test it. And just seeing him, right there in the flesh, gives us a sense of connection to that fundamental force, the Higgs field.

The signing tent was mobbed. All copies of The Infinity Puzzle were gone in seconds, or maybe picoseconds. I picked up a copy of Close's earlier paperback, Neutrino, and joined the queue. I sort of babbled when I asked Professor Higgs to add his signature to the author's.

On top of everything else, the man's a gent.

Labels: ,


I've got a fairly recent degree in physics, and I still have trouble grasping exactly how a particle can be responsible for mass

He had one of the chairs of Physics when I did my degree at Edinburgh University nearly thirty years ago; though he may have been Emeritus even then. I think I had one or two lectures from him, but had no idea at the time how important he was.

As to positive "holes", a) that's electronics (specifically solid-state electronics) rather than electricity; and b) you and me both. I always thought they were a bad explanation of something much more interesting.

When I was a physics postgrad at Edinburgh in the early 90s I attended his lectures - it was way over my head but I don't think I've ever met a more modest, nice person.

Solid state physics: I think that's a world of its own.

Yes, modest and nice, that's what he is.

Martin - you're right, it was about transistors. And a bad explanation of something much more interesting sounds about right. I suspect a 'lie to children' (see Ian Stewart and Terry Pratchett for that term of art) somewhere.

Post a Comment