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The Higgs: Names Becoming Common Nouns

Professor Peter Higgs

Peter Higgs, professor emeritus at the U. of Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for The Guardian

Glancing out of the window as my bus pulled up on North Bridge in Edinburgh the other day, I found myself staring into an unmistakable face only a couple of feet away: the guileless, almost cherubic countenance of Peter Higgs. There he was standing at a bus stop in a scruffy anorak like nobody in particular—a man whose name is now a technical term in physics.

Not only is there a theoretical system called the Higgs mechanism positing a field known as the Higgs field which predicts the existence of a crucial new scalar fundamental particle called the Higgs boson (terms which merely use Higgs’s surname as a proper-noun attributive modifier of a noun), but the newly discovered particle itself is now generally called “the Higgs”—using the surname with the syntax of a common noun. Such lexicographical distinction comes to only a few scientists.

Some scientists show discomfort even about their names being used as modifiers. Noam Chomsky absolutely never refers to Chomsky-adjunction or Chomsky Normal Form or the Chomsky Hierarchy, though all other theoretical linguists and formal language theorists do. Robin Dunbar, the Oxford anthropologist, is a little less shy: He will mention Dunbar’s number in lectures, somewhat bashfully, and with apologies (he claims he never wanted it to be called that). By contrast, I noticed when listening to a lecture by the Berkeley set theorist Hugh Woodin that he is entirely unembarassed about referring to the existence of Woodin cardinals.

Higgs is on the modest end of the scale. He refused a knighthood years ago. On the morning the physics Nobel announcement was due he left home early, carrying no phone, to avoid a possible burst of press attention if he should turn out to have won. He went to a favorite restaurant in Leith for a lunch of sea trout and beer, and no one told him until after lunch when an ex-neighbour spotted him in the street on his walk home. After the press conference that the vice chancellor of the University of Edinburgh had persuaded him to attend at Old College last Friday he wouldn’t even call a taxi. He stood in the street like an ordinary joe, waiting for a Number 8 bus. (It runs down Broughton Street, and at the bottom of the hill you can walk through on London Street to Drummond Place in the Georgian New Town area where he lives alone in a top-floor walk-up apartment just round the corner from mine.)

Every physicist knows that the Higgs could easily have been named differently. When Higgs submitted his first paper on the mechanism to Physics Letters, it was rejected; “of no obvious relevance to physics,” they said sniffily. So Higgs added a paragraph pointing out that his theoretical mechanism implied an answer to the question of how particles acquire mass, and sent it off to Physical Review Letters.

PRL accepted it; but a total of three relevant papers presenting similar ideas appeared there in the last five months of 1964. The first was by Brout and Englert (13(9):321-323, August), though they didn’t actually note the prediction of a new massive scalar boson; the second was by Higgs (13(16):508-509, October), who did predict a new massive scalar particle; and the other, by Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble (13(20):585-587, November), developed the equations defining the Higgs field with considerable rigor, but it was the third to appear, and cited both the earlier two papers. All had been somewhat inspired by a paper of Philip Anderson’s in 1962, and by various other groundbreaking work.

Peter Higgs has modestly suggested that the new particle should be called the ABEGHHK’tH boson, honoring Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble, and one other physicist, Gerard ’t Hooft. Somehow this name did not catch on. I hazard a guess that it never will.

The Nobel decision will surely remain controversial. Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble shared the 2010 American Physical Society’s Sakurai Prize with Brout, Englert, and Higgs for their contributions, but a Nobel can be shared by at most three living individuals. By 2013, Brout had died, but that still left five candidates. Swallowing hard, the committee decided to honor just Englert and Higgs. That settles the matter of the prize.

The linguistic issue, though, had surely been settled years before. The particle will forever be the Higgs.

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