Sunday, October 26, 2014

Collective Creativity vs. the Lone Genius in the Discovery of the Higgs

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a major scientific achievement, writes Neal Hartman in Nautilus. But who did it?
An obvious candidate is Peter Higgs, who postulated the Higgs boson, as a consequence of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, in 1964. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013 along with Francois Englert (Englert and his deceased colleague Robert Brout arrived at the same result independently). But does this mean that Higgs was a genius? Peter Jenni, one of the founders and the first “spokesperson” of the ATLAS Experiment Collaboration (one of the two experiments at CERN that discovered the Higgs particle), hesitates when I ask him the question.

“They [Higgs, Brout and Englert] didn’t think they [were working] on something as grandiose as [Einstein’s relativity],” he states cautiously. The spontaneous symmetry breaking leading to the Higgs “was a challenging question, but [Einstein] saw something new and solved a whole field. Peter Higgs would tell you, he worked a few weeks on this.”

What, then, of the leaders of the experimental effort, those who directed billions of dollars in investment and thousands of physicists, engineers, and students from almost 40 countries for over three decades? Surely there must have been a genius mastermind directing this legion of workers, someone we can single out for his or her extraordinary contribution.

“No,” says [Fabiola] Gianotti unequivocally, which is rare for a physicist, “it’s completely different. The instruments we have built are so complex that inventiveness and creativity manifests itself in the day-by-day work. There are an enormous amount of problems that require genius and creativity to be spread over time and over many people, and all at the same level.”

Scientific breakthroughs often seem to be driven by individual genius, but this perception belies the increasingly collaborative nature of modern science. Perhaps nothing captures this dichotomy better than the story of the Higgs discovery, which presents a stark contrast between the fame awarded to a few on the one hand, and the institutionalized anonymity of the experiments that made the discovery possible on the other.

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