In the arcane world of particle physics, where Professor Stephen Hawking is a celebrity (and smart enough to be a recurring guest on The Simpsons), it’s news when he gambles on a scientific finding – and bigger news when he loses. He recently admitted losing $100 to a colleague when a new subatomic particle was discovered. The particle, believed to be the Higgs boson, is named after Edinburgh physics professor Peter Higgs, who theorized a field of these invisible particles all across the universe, decelerating other tiny particles and conferring them with mass.
The Higgs’ particle was discovered by recreating conditions of the early universe in a huge particle collider consisting of over 1200 magnets cooled close to absolute zero, colder than outer space. In the collider located deep beneath the border between France and Switzerland, protons were crashed together at nearly the speed of light and the new particle appeared, and then disappeared almost instantaneously. But it was long enough for Professor Hawking to concede his bet.
The real lesson for us mere mortals is not the discovery of the particle but the story of Professor Higgs. As a boy, he noticed the name of a former student on his grammar school’s honors board. That student, Paul Dirac, became one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists. Higgs was fascinated that a boy from his school could achieve such prominence and he began reading everything he could about Dirac’s life.
With Dirac as his inspiration, Higgs became a superb physics student. Unfortunately, like many great scientists, he faced adversity early in his career. He was denied a teaching position at his first choice of universities and his early work was rejected by professional journals, which suggested he was on the wrong track. The recent discovery of the new particle validates the perseverance he demonstrated in his sixty-year career. Today, scientists all over the world are recommending him for knighthood in Great Britain and Hawking has said Higgs deserves a Nobel Prize, like his hero, Dirac.
Even if we don’t understand the Higgs boson, we can understand the story of Peter Higgs. And there is a subtle moral to his story, which is the need for better integration between history and science. History books virtually ignore important scientists and their discoveries.
In reviewing the period between 1750 and 1800, every history book discusses two great revolutions, the American quest for independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. However, history books uniformly ignore the third great revolution of that era, although it was no less important. The Chemical Revolution began in 1772 when an English scientist, Joseph Priestly, isolated a colorless gas that would support a candle flame or a mouse trapped under a glass jar. The French scientist Antoine Lavosier appreciated the import of this discovery and named the gas oxygen. The discovery of oxygen overturned all man’s previous understanding of the nature of air, and essentially inaugurated the field of chemistry, which begat other scientific disciplines.
Similarly, consider the year 1929. Every history book considers that the year of the stock market crash, the beginning of the Great Depression. It’s undoubtedly the most important development of 1929. But will it still be regarded that way 100 years from now? The history books rarely mention Alexander Fleming’s scientific paper describing his unexpected observation when some mold serendipitously drifted into his laboratory from an adjoining lab and killed all the bacteria on several discarded petri dishes. Fleming had accidentally discovered penicillin and the purification of that compound eventually saved countless people during and after World War II, and began the Antibiotic Revolution.
History is replete with stories such as those of Fleming, which give meaning to the quote by the renowned author/scientist Isaac Asimov, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny’…” More than anyone, Isaac Asimov understood that science is all about curiosity and human nature. And what is the study of history, if not the study of human nature?
The nexus between history and science should become a focus for future educators, for that is what will forge future generations of scientists. The world of Stephen Hawking, bosons, and quarks may be beyond the comprehension of all but a select few but the story of young Peter Higgs finding inspiration in the life of a famous physicist who attended his grammar school is one everyone can all relate to.
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