One day, when Peter Higgs was a 34-year-old physicist studying at the University of Edinburgh, he came up with an idea.
It was a bold one, an ambitious one, and an extremely complex one. He wrote two papers about it — pencil scribbled on paper. The second paper was turned down; the editors said the theory was "of no obvious relevance to physics." His colleagues even told him he did not grasp the fundamentals of the field.
Fifty years later, 84-year-old Higgs achieved the Nobel Prize in Physics for that one idea, on Tuesday morning.
It all started on a hike in the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the eastern Highlands of Scotland, when Higgs had an inspiration: There had to be an energy field strewn across the universe that would give mass to certain particles and leave others massless. He submitted the paper to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
That editor probably came to seriously regret rejecting that paper. Apparently, he had not yet grasped the path Higgs was embarking upon, that the young physicist was beginning to formulate the mechanism that endows the building blocks of the universe with mass, a fundamental property of all matter. Higgs was in the early stages of finding a crucial puzzle piece; he was beginning to solve a mystery that nagged physicists for decades.
The 34-year-old refused to accept that his paper was denied. And he was damn right to do so.
He added a few paragraphs that focused in on something critical, mainly what we know today as the Higgs Boson, one of the most widely sought-after particles in modern physics, and re-submitted the paper to a new journal in the United States.
Enter Yoichiro Nambu — a peer reviewer on Higgs' material — who was aware that two other physicists, Robert Brout (now deceased) and Francois Englert (the eventual co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel in Physics), had some up with a similar theory at the same time. (To the right: 50 years later, the two men are still finding things to bicker about.)
The fact that Nambu accepted Higgs' paper in the first place indicates that it contained original material that he must have found interesting and provoking.
It often happens that people come up with the same idea almost simultaneously.
So how did Higgs get the credit? It might be that Englert and Brout had a good idea but that Higgs was able to take it much further, and Nambu recognized this. Nambu was a Nobel Prize-winning genius in his own right who saw something in Higgs. Genius recognizes genius.
The three men had a brilliant theory, but no way to prove it at the time. In an interview a few years ago, Higgs said, smiling, "Forty years ago, people didn’t know where to look."
Fast forward to 2008. No more pencils and paper — we're now accelerating subatomic particles at vastly greater energies than was possible 50 years ago, at nearly the speed of light in a $4.4 billion high-energy particle collider, "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind." The Large Hadron Collider remains the latest addition to CERN’s accelerator complex and the only accelerator that could test Higgs's theories.
In an interview, Higgs said, "I certainly had no idea that this would happen in my lifetime."
Millions of measurements later, thousands of physicists at work, the Higgs Boson was verified in 2012. It unlocked an entire world in science; the most sought-after particle had finally been found, and not only would it reveal information about the beginnings of the universe — how matter came to be in the first place — but it would also unlock new realms of conundrums.
The official presentation of the findings was in July 2012 at CERN, the very institution where Higgs's idea had been rejected 50 years earlier.
When physicist Joe Incandela announced the results from the experiments that confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, the audience broke into loud applause.
Some turned to look at Higgs, who was wiping tears from his face.