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Three men and a Sunbeam

I recently came by this black and white picture of three young guys hanging out with a beautiful convertible Sunbeam, complete with spoked wheels and whitewalls, somewhere on the campus at Harvard University.

The shot was taken fifty years ago and though they can hardly have known it at the time, this was to prove a pivotal year for two of the men concerned.

In 1961, Yoichiro Nambu at the University of Chicago published two papers outlining how elementary particles might owe their masses to a mechanism called spontaneous symmetry breaking akin to that seen in superconductors. One of the curious properties of superconductors is that when particles of light penetrate their skin they become heavy, or massive. They slow up and stop.

Sunbeam at Harvard 1961










Nambu extended this principle to other fundamental particles, drawing on a new kind of field that in some ways mimics that within a superconductor. And while the scheme he described was flawed, and as written was unworkable, his line of thinking was the spark that ultimately led physicists to develop what is now referred to as the Higgs mechanism for generating particle masses.

There is much to love about this picture, but what it drives home to me is that many of the main characters in my book were young men and women when they were wrestling with these extraordinary questions of physics and nature. So often it is easy to freeze people in time; the moment you meet or call them becomes their form for life.

I think of the two men in question as major characters in Massive, but the third does not appear in the book. When I learned of his identity I was amazed. He is a British peer and once one of the most prominent scientists in the UK. He is a legend and still as outspoken as ever.

So who are they? I will post what details I have in a week or so.




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