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Remembering physicist Peter Higgs


Even if you're not into theoretical physics, you might have heard of the God particle, also known as the Higgs-Boson or particle. It's named after physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed that interacting with the field packed with these particles is how all the subatomic particles in the universe get their mass. Before this, no one really knew why some subatomic particles had little mass, some had a great deal, and some had none at all. Peter Higgs passed away at the age of 94 on Monday. We're joined now by professor Frank Close, who teaches physics at the University of Oxford and who knew Peter Higgs and wrote a book titled "Elusive" about Higgs and his work. Welcome to the program.

FRANK CLOSE: Hello there.

RASCOE: Tell us a bit about Peter Higgs. What was he like as a person?

CLOSE: Well, he was very elusive. In fact, I called the book "Elusive" not just because Boson took 48 years to discover after his original idea back in 1964, but he as an individual was also elusive. And indeed, in 2013, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize - the way the prize is announced is that the Swedish Academy make contact with the prize winners, and then they go and make the public announcement. But Higgs was nowhere to be found because he left his apartment in Edinburgh and went off without telling anybody to his favorite seafood restaurant completely incommunicado. He doesn't use a mobile phone. He didn't have television. He didn't have any internet contact at all. The only way to contact him in practice was either by writing a letter or by telephoning his landline, and then he would call you back at his convenience.

RASCOE: For those of us who don't dabble in subatomic physics, can you briefly explain the importance of his contribution to the field?

CLOSE: Well, in 1964, he had this insight that today we recognize means if you were to remove absolutely everything, you know, all the matter in the universe, all of the gravitational and electromagnetic fields in the universe, there would still be something left that we are immersed in, some weird stuff which has become known as the Higgs field. And by analogy, just as a goldfish needs to have water in order to survive, so it turns out we need to have this weird stuff in order for the universe as we know it to exist.

RASCOE: And this completed the standard model of physics, right?

CLOSE: Yes, in a sense. In fact, it even did more than that. It established why we have a standard model of physics. So when it was called the God particle - that's a name we all hate - but in a sense it was because of that that order emerged out of chaos.

RASCOE: I understand that Higgs was an atheist. So did he talk to you about how he felt about being known for the, quote-unquote, "God particle"?

CLOSE: Well, it certainly created a lot of interest and excitement. And I asked him, actually, how he felt about it all. He said that it had ruined his life. And he said, my relatively peaceful existence was ending. I don't enjoy this sort of publicity. My style is to work in isolation and occasionally have a bright idea. So that's the elusiveness, both of nature of his work and of the man.

RASCOE: How do you want to remember Peter Higgs?

CLOSE: Oh, as somebody that I was very lucky to have known - he was somebody who was a great delight to be with and talk with, very cultured, very interested in theater and art and many things. My memory that I will have is a photograph that I put up on his memorial wall at Edinburgh University, where he was, which is a picture of him, and he's there on the stage, beaming with laughter.

RASCOE: That's Professor Frank Close from the University of Oxford, remembering theoretical physicist Peter Higgs. Close is also the author of the Higgs' biography, "Elusive." Thank you so much for speaking with us today about your friend and your colleague.

CLOSE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.