Laureates at large

From generous donations to downing Higgs Boson ale, the 2013 Prince of Asturias Award winners have been out in Oviedo in the run-up to the ceremony

Thanks for the boson!”: Technical and scientific research award winners Peter Higgs (c) and François Englert (l) raise a toast in Oviedo.
Thanks for the boson!”: Technical and scientific research award winners Peter Higgs (c) and François Englert (l) raise a toast in Oviedo. Paco Paredes

“Thanks for the boson!” read the placard held up for the discoverers of the elusive Higgs boson by one of the hundreds of youngsters who congregated at the University of Oviedo’s science faculty at midday on Thursday to listen to the Nobel, and now Prince of Asturias Award laureates, Peter Higgs and François Englert.

However, how much each of them understood of what came out of the scientists mouths during their master class varied.One student with the air of a character from The Big Bang Theory and wearing a t-shirt depicting his organic composition in chemical formulas admitted that he hadn’t understood a thing, while another girl said she had followed it “so-so,” noting that she hadn’t yet tackled the subject in class.

After the lecture, Higgs — whose kindly, Hobbit-like appearance makes it hard to resist calling him Bilbo Boson — and Englert signed the blackboard behind them on which the formula of the discovery had been written. Englert remained to correct an error by placing a line over the psi symbol. Nobody else had noticed the mistake.

Later the two scientists became stars as they raised a glass of Higgs Boson Ale, especially created to honor Higgs’s career, and events started to take on the tone of a novel by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the Nobel winners lifting their glasses and singing a song to the boson and to science. But hearing their acknowledgement that the future of science lay with those students who had patiently waited to applaud, cheer and have their pictures taken with them brought a lump to the throat.

Arriving in Oviedo on Thursday, Communication and Humanities Award winner Annie Leibovitz belied her reputed bad temper by posing with press photographers and even kissing one of them.

Earlier, Social Sciences award winner Saskia Sassen, a professor of that subject at the University of Columbia, announced she would donate her 50,000-euro prize to a series of organizations that help the disadvantaged, particularly in Asturias. Around 20 Asturian collectives grouped together as Marea Ciudadana (Citizen’s Tide) had asked Sassen to turn down her prize, given her interest in excluded groups and minorities who fight against the system.

You have to make citizenship; citizenship is not consumed, it is made”

The sociologist explained that she respected and accepted the prize, but with her decision to give away the money, she was adding herself to those demanding more resources for the disadvantaged and the “violently impoverished” in a crisis that, she said, had affected millions of homes.

Talking in Spanish with an Argentinean accent, the professor, who was born in 1949 in The Hague and is considered one of the world’s leading social scientists, spoke about the idea of nomadism (“I put up my tent where I want it to be; when I am in a place, I am in a place”).

She said her communist phase had only lasted a short time and that she now believed in the markets. The problem with them, she continued, was that they had been “distorted” and that 60 percent of international trade was between different subsidiaries of the same companies.

Sassen attributed the crisis in the welfare state to the impoverishment of nation-states and emphasized that people had to mobilize. “You have to make citizenship; citizenship is not consumed, it is made,” she said. She warned against the expulsion of whole groups of the population from the economic arena and the exclusion that is taking in more and more members of the middle class, whose impoverishment she believes is an especially serious issue in the current crisis. She imagined a forthcoming “urbanization of international geopolitics” in which cities create a network parallel to the state.

If Sassen’s press conference was full of complex sociological concepts, that of Higgs, Englert and Rolf Heuer, the director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the research was carried out, was no less challenging. It kicked off with Higgs being asked about god, which is one way of skirting round the difficulty of elementary particles. “I’m not religious, but I have nothing against the fact that different opinions exist according to each person’s belief,” he said. “The difficulties have come when you go too far and invade other people’s territories.”

Higgs thinks it is “perfectly possible” to have religious beliefs and also be a scientist. The prize winner admitted it was “unfortunate” that the recognition for the confirmation of the Higgs boson had not gone to all the “various people” who contributed to the discovery but just Englert and himself, and gave specific mention to the late Robert Brout. Higgs appreciated that the Prince of Asturias Award jury had included the CERN in the prize in order to widen its recognition.

In response to the thorny question of what interest the discovery of the new particle might have to your everyday man on the street, Heuer admitted that he was unable to point to an immediate application but the basis of science was to search for knowledge and the use of some discoveries was not seen until 50 or 60 years later. “At some point there will be applications, but we do not know when or where,” he said.

The scientists nevertheless emphasized that the discovery reveals to us “why we might exist” — no small matter, you have to agree. “We need the Higgs mechanism to give mass to the fundamental particles. So it gives us the reason of why we exist.”

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