Peter Higgs stands in front of a Large Hadron Collider art projection

Peter Higgs predicted a boson that completed the standard model of particle physics.Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass Frank Close Basic (2022).

Peter Higgs is not the easiest subject for a biographer to tackle. A 93-year-old British theoretical physicist who won half of a Nobel prize in 2013, he is notoriously shy, inaccessible by e-mail and mobile phone, self-deprecating and averse to the spotlight. On top of all that, physicist Frank Close took on the task of profiling him during the COVID-19 pandemic, which wrecked Close’s plans to dig into archives and consult Higgs extensively.

But the author is, one can’t resist saying, a Close friend of Higgs, and conversed frequently with his subject by landline. Elusive — a title that alludes to both the man and the subatomic particle that he predicted — ended up as a breezy yet informative book that entwines the story of Higgs’s life with that of the construction of the grand theoretical edifice known as the standard model of elementary particle physics. In 1964, Higgs contributed a crucial piece to that model, theorizing the existence of a particle — later known as the Higgs boson — that imbues all other particles with mass. The Higgs was triumphantly discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, in 2012. Close’s attention to Higgs the person distinguishes this book from science writer Jim Baggott’s 2012 book Higgs, which is more about the science and spares only a few pages for the man himself.

Close gives a quick account of Higgs’s mentors, interests and the episode of depression that sidelined him from physics. We learn about factors that shaped Higgs’s career — his early education in Bristol, UK, and degree at King’s College London, inspirational figures (physicists Charles Coulson and Paul Dirac) and the role of political activities, such as his membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in forging a network of contacts. These influences fostered his interest in quantum field theory, which ultimately forced him to confront the most challenging puzzle that the discipline then faced: why is there mass?

Elusive parallels Higgs’s personal story with a sketch of the numerous pieces that went into the architecture of the standard model: the theoretical framework provided by quantum field theory, the solutions to numerous problems in the model’s structure, plus all the particles and fields that the theory encompassed. But a key element was missing — a way to explain how fundamental particles can have mass, and why they have the masses that they do.

Missing piece

The breakthrough idea was that a type of particle called a boson could eliminate the problem that stymied attempts to account for mass. Close deals well with the tricky and potentially controversial issue of the five other theoretical physicists who independently came up with the same concept around the same time. He cites others who claim that, because of all the developments leading up to this insight, Higgs was actually “a rather minor player”, or that his role was a matter of luck. But Close justifies Higgs’s name being attached to the particle, because he both predicted that the boson exists, and suggested a means to identify it.

Certain details are fascinating. An offhand remark by Higgs, while out to dinner on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, was picked up by a journalist. It concerned Stephen Hawking’s sceptical reaction to Higgs’s work and was duly printed on the front pages of newspapers to imply that Higgs had made a “deeply personal attack” on a genius who used a wheelchair, leading to unnecessary tension between the two physicists. Other interesting details include Higgs’s elaborate plans to hide out on the day in 2013 when the Nobel decision was to be announced.

Close has a dazzling ability to condense complex ideas into accessible metaphors. Fermions and bosons are compared to cuckoos and penguins (the former can’t nest together, the latter live in groups), gauge invariance is likened to air travel (the time needed for travel is independent of the time zone in which the journey started), bosons in the nucleus to bears in a cave. Occasionally, the metaphors come too fast — in a single paragraph, Close compares Higgs’s research bibliography to a baseball score (“three hits, three runs, no errors”) and also to composers’ works (“Salieri had a much larger oeuvre than Mozart, but who cares about him?”).

A reader learns to await the next over-the-top metaphor, and these become exhausting after a while — Higgs as a climber of Everest, Higgs as like Banquo in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Higgs as the “midwife of a revolution”. This last trope is downright false. The standard model had been around for nearly half a century before the LHC discovery; it was obvious that the model depended on a solution to the mass problem; and theorists had been making significant strides for years. Higgs was more like the person who designed a long-sought piece to hold together the field’s communal meeting house.

Close’s oversimplifications can be embarrassing when it comes to social causes, as when he writes of Higgs, on a visit to the United States in the 1960s, discovering that it was not “a nation of milk and honey” because it had “much poverty”. When Higgs’s train to Washington DC is blocked by snow, it is jarring to read Close dropping in the extra fact — however well-intentioned — that the blizzard “killed large numbers of Black Americans living in wooden shanties”.

The back cover of Elusive declares that the book “will remake our understanding of modern physics”. What could justify that extravagant claim? Certainly not the descriptions of science; scientists and science writers have been explaining what Higgs did ever since he won his Nobel prize nine years ago. The book’s chief interest is in what it shows — sometimes too chattily — about physicists. They are not abstract thinkers who study data points and logic to arrive at their conclusions, but individuals with passions and commitments whose research path is often indirect and marked by missed occasions and chance encounters. Elusive shows how the story of a physicist’s life, told right, can reveal much about living as a physicist.