Phil Anderson

Phil Anderson

Name: Phil Anderson

Title: Joseph Henry professor of physics

Current institution: Princeton University

Home state: Indiana

Alma mater: Harvard University, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Reason for studying physics: I come from a family of academics—my father was a plant pathologist and my grandfather was a professor of mathematics. Some of my parents’ friends were physicists, and they encouraged my interest.

Paper published on theory of mass-giving mechanism: Plasmons, Gauge Invariance, and Mass (Physical Review Letters, published April 1963)

Contribution to theory: My theory extends from the BCS theory (which was first proposed in 1957 by John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer, and which describes how nucelons pair in the nuclei of atoms, as well as the idea of how superconductivity works at the subatomic level), the work of Yoichiro Nambu (which includes early discussions of spontaneous symmetry breaking in particle physics and the idea that nucleons could obtain mass through symmetry breaking) and builds on Julian Schwinger’s proposal (that bosons in the vacuum of broken symmetry do not have to be massless). Nambu’s theory wasn’t correct, since the nucleon is made up of quarks, which are massless, but the theory had some reality to it. He gave us the idea that fundamental equations of particle physics are not stable and might have spontaneous symmetry breaking. People, including me, started developing theories to explain this.

I brought in an idea I had started to develop while thinking about superconductivity—the superconductor does not have any collective excitation, or a boson capable of carrying and exchanging forces. There must be something else there—that’s the important part of my paper. Nambu visited the idea of Goldstone bosons (particles thought to appear when symmetry breaks), but those were supposed to be massless. I didn’t think they were in the vacuum or involved in breaking symmetry and I was right. My solution was to develop a way to include massive gauge bosons in these symmetry-breaking theories. That’s the mechanism of the mass-giving field.

What were some obstacles you faced developing your theory? I’m a condensed matter physicist, not a particle physicist. To communicate this idea, I had to translate a paper I wrote for the condensed matter physics community in 1958. The 1963 paper is the same—just written in a language particle physicists understand.

How was the paper received in the scientific community? Practically nobody read my paper, except for Peter Higgs. And that was enough.

What did you think about the July 4, 2012 announcement made at CERN about a newly discovered particle that looked a lot like the Higgs boson? I was glad to hear about it. I had been waiting 50 years, and I’m pleased they found it. I admire the experimentalists a great deal. Experiments on that scale—it’s difficult, and it’s very impressive.

What are you up to now? As usual, having trouble getting my papers through the journal referees. I’m studying superconductors, and I’m particularly interested in solid helium. There’s a question about whether it has a super flow, and I have good theoretical reasons to believe it does. Let’s just say that when I published my paper in 1963, I was lucky it wasn’t 2013. There’s a lot more competitiveness and conservatism nowadays.