Gerald Guralnik (1936-2014)

Of the six scientists who came up with the idea of a Higgs boson in the mid-1960s, independently or in collaboration with others, I’ve met all of one. Tom Kibble was at the Institute of Mathematical Science, Chennai, in January 2013 for a conference. He was 80 years old then, and looked quite frail. Every time somebody tapped his shoulder before taking a photograph, he would break into a self-effacing smile. It was clear he was surprised by the attention he was receiving. Kibble thought he didn’t deserve it.

He, Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik comprised one of the three teams that conceived the mechanism to explain how some fundamental particles acquired mass in the early universe, over time making possible chemical reactions, stars, life, and many things besides. The other two teams comprised Francois Englert and Robert Brout, and Peter Higgs; Higgs’ name has today become attached to the name of the mechanism. For their work, Higgs and Englert were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics. Brout couldn’t receive the prize because he had died in 2011. Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik were left out because of limits on how many people the prize could be awarded to at a time.

Fair share of obstacles

On April 26, 2014, Gerald Guralnik died of a heart attack in Rhode Island after delivering a lecture at Brown University. He was 77. In those seven decades, he had become one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical particle physics, which, through the 1960s, was entering its boom time as the world would later discover. In this period, he co-scripted one of the most enduring quests in modern physics research.

Before I started writing this, I visited the Wikipedia page for the Physical Review Letters papers published by the three groups that first called the world’s attention to their findings. In the second line, Peter Higgs is mentioned as having worked with Satyen Bose – undoubtedly the consequence of a grave misapprehension that pervaded India when the 2013 Nobel Prizes were announced. Many believed Satyen Bose had been neglected for his work, but he just hadn’t worked on the Higgs boson, only on the underlying theory that controls the lives and times of all bosons. If such are the facile issues that concern some misguided Indians today, Guralnik tackled more than a fair share in his time.

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For a few years after Kibble, Hagen and Guralnik published their paper, their work wasn’t taken seriously. Guralnik wrote in Huffington Post in August 2012 that, in the summer of 1965, Werner Heisenberg – the originator of the notorious uncertainty principle – thought Guralnik’s ideas were junk. The New York Times wrote that Robert Marshak, a famous theoretical physicist, told Guralnik that if he wished to survive in physics, he “must stop thinking about this sort of problem and move on,” advice that Guralnik “wisely obeyed”. According to Kibble, however, Marshak later admitted that he had been misguided.

Deference over primacy

Nevertheless, some other scientists had starting working on Guralnik & co.’s theories. By the 1970s, Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg had succeeded in ironing out many of its inconsistencies and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979 for their work… even though it would be 50 more years to prove via experiment that the Higgs mechanism was for real. This is because there was no disputing that the implications of the work of Kibble, Hagen, Guralnik, Higgs, Brout and Englert were revolutionary, at least among those who were willing to accept it.

To this end, the 1979 prizewinners and the ‘Higgs Six’ were aware of and deferential toward the contributions of others to the development of this new theory. In fact, Higgs, who has often wound up being the centre of attention when talk of his eponymous mechanism comes up, has said that he’d rather call it the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism (A denoted Phillip Warren Anderson; ‘tH, Gerardus ‘t Hooft).

But others were less considerate, which didn’t go down well with Guralnik. As Kibble wrote in his obituary in Nature, “Guralnik came to feel that our early paper was often unfairly neglected. He gave talks and wrote papers pointing out our distinctive contribution, of which he was justifiably proud, and in which he was unquestionably the prime mover.” This doesn’t mean he went on to become a sour, old bat, of course, but only that Guralnik seemed to appreciate the gravitas of his work much more than others at the time. When  Higgs and Englert shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics, Guralnik told Brown Daily Herald that he was “a little hurt”, but happier for the recognition that his peers – and by extension his work – had received.

(It is, in fact, hard to say if he is as celebrated as Higgs is today, physicists notwithstanding. Such are the consequences of asymmetric recognition, a sort of ceiling effect that silences avant garde advancements until the world is ready to hear them. This is also a complaint I’ve heard from far too many Indian scientists and whose efforts to remedy it I don’t begrudge them even if it only seems like an infantile squabble over primacy.)

In fact, after his work in establishing the theoretical foundations of the Higgs mechanism, which itself is a cornerstone of a unified theory that describes both the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces of nature, Guralnik proceeded to make a lot of other contributions. He worked on computational approaches to quantum field theory, quantum chromodynamics (i.e., the theory of the strong nuclear force), the application of chaos theory to particle physics, and string theory. His was a versatile genius, in part combative and in part pliant. Rest in peace.

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