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peter-higgs-2013

Peter Higgs won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for “the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.” He shares the prize with Francois Englert of Belgium.

The announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics was delayed by an hour as members of the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm tried in vain to contact the retired theoretical physicist Peter Higgs. Professor Higgs had not been told he had won the Nobel Prize when it was announced on Tuesday morning. He heard the news from a former neighbour on his return from lunch in Edinburgh. She pulled up in her car to congratulate him.

Until recently Prof Higgs has not owned a mobile phone, and he was on holiday without it. He also does not own a television and only recently bought a laptop, and has admitted he struggles to use it. For someone who helped unleash the first great scientific discovery of the 21st century, Peter Higgs is a remarkably low-tech man. He did his most celebrated work in the 60s, and he didn’t even have a pocked calculator, let alone a desktop computer. He came up with his theory using nothing grander than fountain pens, pencils and paper.

He has always been a reclusive genius and you may say that it is not unreasonable for a grandfather in his eighties to shy away from spotlight even more now. However, the morality tale is not associated with his age or how many grandchildren he has. Instead his story puts us in the spotlight.

There is a social consensus in the world that we are interminably tied to our mobile phones. ‘If it rings you must answer’ is almost becoming a rule of thumb, literally. Looking at your phone every 5 seconds is not considered a mania but normal. The constant need to know whats happening everywhere and anywhere in the world has become more important than resting your thumbs and eyes. I read that among the new words in popular culture that were added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online, FOMO is one of them. I had to look it up obviously. It means fear of missing out: anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website. I genuinely thought ODO was making things up; unfortunately, I was wrong. So, there’s a fear now, of not knowing what is going on every minute of the day. Why do we have to know? Unless of course you are working for the CNN, and wants to transmit unconfirmed news before they even happen.

People are constantly busy reacting to news, gossip, speculations, conspiracy theories, Facebook updates and Tweets. Very few are proactive or just sitting down without staring at a 4 inch screen. It seems as if we only know how to react. I mean, there are actual YouTube videos of people reacting to everything in the world, and videos of people reacting to other people reacting. Does anyone look out of a window or take time to ponder without Googling? In order to be a good scientist, a writer, an artist or a musician who contributes great things to the world, one needs to be proactive. Neither Einstein, nor Peter Higgs had mobile phones, the internet or a computer; neither did Socrates or Plato, but they did change the world. They contributed original thoughts which were innovative, imaginative and ingenious. They did this by the power of thought and logical reasoning rather than avoiding FOMO. Whether it is the 21st century or the 5th century, cognitive thinking, creative imagination and independent musing are timelessly important.

Although Googling maybe a convenient way of learning, what you might find in a library may just be better. Like Neil Gaiman points out: “Google can bring you back 100000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” Never underestimate what a combination of silence, books and helpful cataloging can achieve.

We complain that there are no original thinkers in the world today. We are recycling ideas, remaking every movie and unreimagining every TV series plot. How do people think freely when they are industriously looking out for the next text message and next email? And even if they did think freely, how would they recognise their own thoughts when they are too busy reading the instant thoughts of others?

I’m not saying that we should all move to the Scottish highlands, although that would be great, and then again it won’t be if everyone moved there. I’m saying that the story of Peter Higgs should make us wonder about ourselves. If one of us was nominated for a Nobel Prize or let alone any prize, it is fair to say that most of us would be constantly checking our phones for updates. It is also fair to say that even if we were not nominated or even remotely considered for any title whatsoever, we would still be checking our phones relentlessly. It is the thing we normally do. What is worse is that there are teenagers who are incapable of having a conversation without being glued to their phones. I’m aware that it is the escape mechanism through which they seek emotional support from peers when they have to deal with the daunting and terrible task of talking to their parents – I was once a teenager with a phone. But it doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

Sometimes being a recluse is good. We must all make time to be one. Ignorance is bliss too; we don’t have to always know everything that is happening everywhere.  It is OK not to answer your phone every time it rings, it is not an obligation. And if you don’t have a TV, trust me you are not missing out on much excitement.