• The Good: Science, politics, and a very human story
  • The Bad: Inconsistent pacing; math and science versus biography ratio
  • The Literary: Elusive—both the man and the particle

Physicist Peter Higgs is the only person in history to have an existing single particle named for him, made famous when the media dubbed the Higgs boson the “god particle”. Notably unprolific and shunning recognition, Peter Higgs’ scientific journey is fraught with competition between people, instiutions, and politics.

Peter Higgs is an introvert. He leads a quiet life, tends to work alone, and does not read his email or carry a cell phone. The best story from the book is that when Higgs was expected to win the Nobel prize, he disappeared. In his own words, “I decided not to be home.” A few days before, he told those he worked with he’d be unreachable in nothern Scotland, and on the morning of the announcement, he crept out his back door, caught a bus to a nearby town, and tucked himself into a pub.

The first section of the book describes his sickly and lonely childhood, his marriage and its failure, his struggle with depression, and his workaholism, all of which contribute to his antisocial tendencies. He also didn’t do well in the media spotlight, either refusing to say anything at all or making a statement off the cuff that got him into trouble, including a recurring tiff with Stephen Hawking.

But Higgs always had his own set of principles. He decided to attend King’s College London instead of Cambridge or Oxford on the basis that only rich kids seeking an easy degree and connections attended there. He was unpopular with his collegues for advocating for social justice issues thorought his career. And later in life he turned down a knighthood from the Queen because he felt the honors systems is used primarily for political positioning.

Of course, there’s plenty of science, so be prepared to brush up on your basic physics. But what’s notable about the discovery of the Higgs boson is that over the summer of 1964, a relatively unknown and isolated scientist developed an idea for a new unstable and heavy sub-atomic particle that satisfied a long-standing mathematical quandry. The paper was initially rejected for it’s lack of “obvious relevance to physics”. From that small theory, hundreds of scientists and decades of research have debated, expanded upon, and spent millions of dollars (i.e. the Large Hadron Collider) to confirm its existence.

While I enjoy the personal life, techical explanations of the theory of the Higgs mechanism, and subsequent explosion of scientific endevors to move the theory into experimentation, the book doesn’t quite know if it’s biography or science, so it ends up being a difficult to read biography and a wok of frustrating pop-physics.