Massive goes to Edinburgh
I took the train up to Scotland on Friday to give a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was special to speak about the book in the city. Not only is it a staggeringly beautiful place, it is home to Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who features so prominently in the book.
The last time I'd visited Edinburgh was to interview Peter. I had gone up on the sleeper train, which is a misnomer. If I slept at all, I didn't feel the benefit. To make matters worse, I arrived in the middle of a torrential downpour that was sending thick ripples of water down the slip road into the station. I didn't have an umbrella, but I found a towel in my bag and bundled it on my head and walked to Peter's apartment, a distance of only about a mile.
Unfortunately, the towel was red and new. By the time I arrived at Peter's door, I had red streaks running down my face. I must have looked like I'd been bottled on the way. I did my best to clean myself up before pressing the buzzer. If Peter noticed, he didn't mention it.
I was sharing the stage with Frank Close, a theoretical physicist at Oxford Univesity, who was talking about his last book, Antimatter. He did a great turn, a blur of waving arms, snapping fingers and very, very large numbers. Dan Brown - he of antimatter bomb-inspired fiction - would have loved it. When it came to my turn, I whizzed through the main areas my book covers, from the history of the Higgs mechanism to the hunt for the Higgs boson, first at CERN near Geneva, then Fermilab near Chicago, and now at both of these laboratories. The audience was great and laughed a lot. Often in the right places, too.
I had a good chat with Frank afterwards. He’s got some interesting views on the Higgs story. For one, he thinks the Nobel prize will be awarded to those who proposed what we now call the Higgs boson, rather than the mass-giving Higgs mechanism. That’s interesting because it shakes up those in the running for the prize. The first team to publish on the mass giving mechanism were Robert Brout and Francois Englert in Brussels, but they didn’t explicitly mention the massive particle that physicists are looking so hard for. Peter Higgs was the first to highlight the signature particle.
But enough of that. The Edinburgh book festival always attracts some real stars, and its website has a fantastic audio archive of speakers that is well worth a trawl. You won’t find it brimming with scientists, but I defy you not to find someone you want to hear.