My own little “Higgs”-related story

The physics community is in a near frenzy today with the expectation that, tomorrow at 9 am Geneva time, researchers at the Large Hadron Collider will announce the first significant evidence that they’ve discovered the “Higgs boson”, a fundamental particle that was predicted in the 1960s and has been sought in high-energy physics experiments ever since.

What is the Higgs?  Physicists studying the fundamental forces of nature have long been concerned with understanding why matter has mass, and why some fundamental particles are so much heavier than others.  In the 1960s, a number of researchers postulated the existence of a “field” that permeates all space and, loosely speaking, creates a “drag” on matter, some types of particles more than others.  This field is now referred to as the “Higgs field”, and it is expected to be directly manifested in the form of a particle — the Higgs boson — that can be detected by smashing protons together at sufficiently high energies.

High-energy physics isn’t my field, so for those who are interested in learning more, there is an excellent video explainer at PhD Comics and a good written explanation at Cosmic Variance.  Also, Sean is hoping to live-blog the announcement, so check out his updates! (Though the news should break at 3 am EST!)

The “Higgs boson” is named for its most famous discoverer, Peter Higgs, who published a paper in Physical Review Letters in 1964 laying out the theoretical foundations of the idea. However, I was reminded today by Oliver Willis via his Twitter feed that there were in fact six physicists who, in three groups, independently and more or less simultaneously made the same “Higgs hypothesis”.  In addition to Higgs, the duo of François Englert and Robert Brout and the trio of Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble also published papers in Physics Review Letters in 1964 on what is now know only as the “Higgs”.

There are two phenomena at play here worth noting that occur quite regularly in the process of scientific discovery.  The first of these is the discovery of a new phenomenon (or concept) by multiple researchers independently at around the same time.  No discovery is made in a vacuum, and as science builds on earlier results, it is almost inevitable that many will be following the same “line of attack” in solving a scientific problem.  A good example of this is Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, first published in 1905.  Though Einstein is rightly credited with properly describing the new relativistic view of the universe, many other researchers such as Poincaré and Lorentz were inching along the same path.

The other thing that happens quite often in scientific discovery is the sometimes unusual and somewhat off-kilter naming of things.  Though Higgs did hypothesize the boson providing mass, others did as well, as we have noted.  Scientific discovery proceeds in a rather organic (often seemingly random) manner, and the naming of things is no different.  Sometimes, things can get credited to the wrong person.  Other times, things are named for a researcher against their wishes!  Two personal examples I know of this are the Berry phase and the Wolf shift, effects whose discoverers (Sir Michael Berry and Emil Wolf, respectively) have actively resisted having named after them.

Fortunately, in the case of the Higgs, the six authors of the original Higgs papers were acknowledged for their work in 2010 when they received the J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics.

As it turns out, I actually know one of the other researchers who originally conceived of the Higgs!  Professor Carl Richard Hagen is a professor at the University of Rochester, where I got my PhD, and I had a number of interactions with him.  While we wait for the Higgs news, I thought I’d share my own silly little anecdote related to Hagen.  It has little to do with science, but a lot to do with life as a graduate student!

I entered graduate school in the Department of Physics at the University of Rochester in 1994.  I was actually part of an extremely small class of only 6 students that year.  In admitting students to a graduate program, a department never knows how many students will actually accept the offer:  departments will typically “overbook” admissions with the expectation that many applicants will go elsewhere.  The year before mine, in a statistical fluke, every single student decided to come to the U of R, and the department had far more students than it needed.  To even out the imbalance, a much smaller number of offers were made to students in my year.

Since there were only six of us, we ended up being a very tight-knit group!  We were taking all of the same classes, we shared the same office for entering students, and we ended up going out regularly to lunch — and bars — together.  I have to admit we took unfair advantage of this close connection sometimes!  On more than one occasion, someone would say, “I don’t feel like doing homework tonight — call the others,” we would all go out partying, and the next day not a single student would have his/her homework ready to hand in.  The poor profs couldn’t very well fail us all, so we would get an extension of the deadline.

Two of the classes we were taking at the time are of particular interest for this story.  One of these was Emil Wolf’s “Mathematical Methods” course — a devastatingly difficult and rigorous survey of every imaginable mathematical trick we might need to know.  The other was “Electromagnetism”, which was being taught by Tom Ferbel*.  Unfortunately, Professor Ferbel fell seriously ill about a third of the way through the semester and couldn’t continue to teach.  Professor Hagen graciously agreed to fill in for him.

We didn’t know much about Hagen at the time.  He is in fact very nice and personable but can come across as stern and imposing — one time when he stopped by my office unexpectedly to interrogate me about an optics problem I nearly had a heart attack!  Gossip amongst the graduate students** indicated that he had played a big role in the Higgs theory but also suggested that he had been blasted with some negative teaching evaluations.  When he came to teach our class, we didn’t really know what to expect.

Here’s where the timeline becomes important.  Professor Hagen taught our E/M class for the first time on a Tuesday.  The class went just fine, but the very next day we had our first midterm for Professor Wolf’s math class.  Wolf is an “old school” teacher: his exams are the sort that, if you start writing immediately and make absolutely no mistakes at all, you might managed to finish all of the problems in the time allotted.  My classmates and I were all completely stressed about this test: we studied frantically for it as soon as Hagen’s class was over, and after Wolf’s test was over we all decided we needed to unwind.  That Wednesday evening four of the six of us decided to go out and get wasted***.

The next morning, each of the four of us woke up in the morning hungover and miserable, and each of the four of us independently said, “Ah, hell, I’ll skip class today — everyone else will be there.”  When Professor Hagen came to class on Thursday morning, he found only two students there, and those two students had no idea where everyone else was.  If I remember correctly, he cancelled class that day!

Now, imagine it, as I did, through the eyes of Professor Hagen, rumored to be a poor teacher.  He teaches a class for the first time, and the very next class 2/3rds of the students decided not to show up.  I don’t know for sure what ended up going through his mind at this turn of events, but it couldn’t have been a happy thought.

I actually felt so bad about this that I sought out Professor Hagen in the physics library that afternoon and explained to him that we hadn’t deliberately skipped class but rather were completely hungover.  I like to think he appreciated my candor, if not my embarrassment.

I have no idea if the rumors of negative teaching evaluations had any basis**** — I found him to be a great teacher — but he certainly silenced them within the next couple of years, winning an undergraduate teaching award.

So that’s my own personal “Higgs”-related story: the tale of how my classmates and I inadvertently annoyed and disrespected one of the original visionaries of the Higgs field.  Hopefully the morning’s results from the LHC will be a little more constructive!

(Updated to fix my inexplicable misspelling of Hagen’s name throughout most of the post.)

******************

* Tom Ferbel is not above giving students some good-natured grief!  I started figure skating while a graduate student at Rochester, and Ferbel learned of this through my friend Casey, an undergraduate in physics and a top-notch skater herself.  When it came time for me to receive my PhD at the departmental ceremony in front of my friends, family and colleagues, Ferbel was announcing the candidates and handing us the official documents.  He announced me as follows, word for word: “Our next PhD candidate is Greg Gbur, who I have come to understand is quite a good figure skater.  And an okay physicist.”  (I still laugh when I think about that, which I found hilarious.)

** Looking back, it occurs to me that we gossiped a lot in graduate school.  There was also a persistent rumor that Professor Wolf had a photograph of Olivia Newton-John in his office, autographed to him.  This turned out to be true.

*** I know it’s shocking but, yes, I used to party a lot.  I hope my status as a science role model is not permanently tainted.

**** And, quite frankly, we all have gotten bad evaluations at some point.

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7 Responses to My own little “Higgs”-related story

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Why shouldn’t a physicist have an autographed picture of Olivia Newton-John? She’s Max Born’s granddaughter, after all!

  2. Ian Holmes says:

    I love tales of “how my classmates inadvertently annoyed and disrespected original visionaries”. I grew up in Cambridge, UK, and nearly ran over Stephen Hawking several times. He knew all about black holes, but apparently little of the laws of road safety. Great days.

  3. anonymous says:

    Great story… Now I will not feel as bad after a late night at the Saucer!

  4. BadDragon says:

    We entered once a Spectroscopy lab, me and 2 other colleagues. A huge hangover on a Wednesday morning, with the lab spinning around us, waiting for the professor to come and kick us out. He came indeed, but instead of kicking us out he asked: “yours is moving clockwise or counterclockwise? Mine is clockwise”

    Then I understood there will be steam to be blown at any age and academic level.

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