Physicist doubts work like Higgs boson identification achievable now as academics are expected to ‘keep churning out papers’
Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.
The emeritus professor at Edinburgh university, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers following his groundbreaking work in 1964 which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass.
He doubts that a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.
Edinburgh university’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.
Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’”
By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more.”
He added: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”
Higgs revealed that his career had also been jeopardised by his disagreements in the 1960s and 70s with the then principal, Michael Swann, who went on to chair the BBC. Higgs objected to Swann’s handling of student protests and to the university’s shareholdings in South African companies during the apartheid regime. “[Swann] didn’t understand the issues, and denounced the student leaders.”
Higgs regrets that the particle he identified in 1964 became known as the “God particle”. He said: “Some people get confused between the science and the theology. They claim that what happened at Cern proves the existence of God.”
An atheist since the age of 10, he fears the nickname “reinforces confused thinking in the heads of people who are already thinking in a confused way. If they believe that story about creation in seven days, are they being intelligent?”
He also revealed that he turned down a knighthood in 1999. “I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.”
He has not yet decided which way he will vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. “My attitude would depend a little bit on how much progress the lunatic right of the Conservative party makes in trying to get us out of Europe. If the UK were threatening to withdraw from Europe, I would certainly want Scotland to be out of that.”
He has never been tempted to buy a television, but was persuaded to watch The Big Bang Theory last year, and said he wasn’t impressed.
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