The fourth man

Last week I posted a black and white photograph of three young men and a beautiful Sunbeam Alpine convertible taken in 1961 on the campus of Harvard University.

I wondered if anyone might recognise the men: two are major characters in Massive and were there right at the start of the story that culminates in the hunt for what became known as the Higgs boson.

The third person in the photograph is not in the book, but in many ways should be more recognisable. He went on to hold two of the most senior positions in science in Britain: the government chief scientist and President of the Royal Society.

Here is the picture again. As I said in my original post, there is a lot to love about the image. What is especially exciting to me is knowing something of the journey the two men who appear here, and in Massive, were about to embark on. It pretty much all began in the year of 1961.











I had planned to write a follow-up blog to reveal the names of the men, but an email arrived the other day that does the job far better than I could ever hope to. The email was from Professor Terry Fine, who recently retired from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University in New York. He is well placed to say who is who here. He took the photo. It is his car.

The email reads:

There is a fourth person implied by this photo. I took it when my 1960 Sunbeam Alpine was parked behind the Harvard dormitory Conant Hall, near the then Harvard Cyclotron Lab. My long-time friend, Gerry Guralnik, is at the steering wheel. The current Lord May of Oxford is holding up his fingers in an Australian gesture, and Dick Hagen is looking away. Bob May was a postdoc then and the rest of us were grad students.

By a strange coincidence, after many decades at Cornell, I moved to a suburb of Rochester, NY, and found that Dick lived only two houses away. Gerry and I have been in good contact over the years.

I asked Terry's permission before posting his email and in his response, he fleshed out the story a little more:

I met Gerry in my first semester of graduate school of Harvard. We lived on the same floor of the same Harvard graduate dorm. I then met Dick through Gerry. After two years in grad school and seeing what Gerry was up to I thought of changing direction from electrical engineering to elementary particle theory. I approached Walter Gilbert, Gerry's thesis advisor, and asked him to be my advisor. Gilbert declined by noting that he himself was switching to biology. I wondered why he would choose to leave such an exciting field, but it did work out rather well for him.

If you have read Massive, you might recall that Walter Gilbert plays a very interesting role in the story in 1964. I won't go into that here, but since it is Nobel week, I should however add that Gilbert's move into biology led to his later sharing the 1980 Nobel prize in chemistry for DNA sequencing.

So there you have it. I know Gerry Guralnik and Dick Hagen as the G and H in GHK, the initials standing for Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble, the three-man team who came up with the theory of fundamental particle masses within weeks of Peter Higgs and two others, the late Robert Brout and Francois Englert at the Free University of Brussels. (See here for a chronology of their papers).

When people write about the Higgs field or the Higgs mechanism they often seem ignorant to the fact that these ideas came not from Peter Higgs alone, but from six physicists, as near as damn it simultaneously. To pick one person out as responsible for any major push forward in science is almost always a distortion of the truth.

I hardly ever see the trio of Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble acknowledged for their work on what is now called the Higgs mechanism, but they were credited, along with Higgs, Brout and Englert, with the Sakurai prize in 2010.

Here is a picture of all three, Guarlnik, Hagen and Tom Kibble (based at Imperial College, London), on the right. These shots were taken in 1962, when the group was making headway towards their theory of particle masses.

I cannot look at this without smiling.




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