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E-mail Won’t Help You Win a Nobel Prize


The Elusive Dr. Higgs

This past October, the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for his work predicting the particle that bears his name. The only problem: no one could find him.

Peter Higgs, it turns out, is not interested in being accessible. He has no e-mail address because he owns no computer. He does own a cellphone, but he only answers it if he knows the caller.

It’s easy to imagine Higgs as a recluse, but as The Guardian reported in its Nobel coverage, he’s actually quite busy. It’s just that his definition of “busy” doesn’t include an inbox.

I like these types of stories. They’re not useful as a direct source of advice (most of us probably need to keep our computers). But they do provide a nice reminder about the type of work that ends up changing the way we understand the world.

(Image by Gert-Martin Greuel via Wiki Commons)

20 thoughts on “E-mail Won’t Help You Win a Nobel Prize”

  1. Given that he came up with his theory in 1964, his choice today not to use email doesn’t seem connected to his winning the prize.

  2. Dr. Higgs looks to be about my grandparents’ age, and they don’t have email either.

    Ironically, I received this notification about Dr. Higgs via email. Which reminds me once again that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Shakespeare. Who also didn’t have email, but I’m sure would have had a Twitter account.)

  3. One of the most productive and interesting people I know, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, does not own a computer. She hikes, skis, writes, paints, reads, takes cross-country trips with a friend in a camper, and has many friends whose interests are as varied as hers (hence the variety of friends). We stay in touch with her by telephone, snail mail, and personal visits. Her answering machine monitors her phone calls, so we all know to wait for the message and then announce ourselves, after which, if home, she will greet the caller and be ready for lively conversation. Way to live, I say.

  4. Cal, understand the audience here may skew towards the science prize(s), but Alice Munro (this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature) was likewise inaccessible. I believe she uses a fax machine when working with her editor at the New Yorker.

    And, perhaps unlike Dr Higgs, the work she is doing today – in spite of email and the various trappings of the internet – is what won her the prize. Many would say her most remarkable, memorable and deeply thought/felt work has occurred post-1993.

  5. Very inspiring story. Thanks for sharing. Recently, I forgot my iPhone charger on a business trip and didn’t have the time to buy one as I was in full day meetings. My rationale for not buying the charger was that since the meetings were with my most important client anyway, I wouldn’t be answering the calls even if my phone was charged. I found that not having the option of the phone made a significant difference to my productivity. My mind did protest to the deep work and I checked my email, linkedin etc. occasionally but the experience made me wonder how my deep work can be hindered sometimes by these distractions and if I can possibly discipline myself with being less accessible and hence less scattered.

  6. It does raise an interesting point as more people in the United States are getting older. As people become elderly and more infirm and are not familiar with things like email will they become more disconnected The number of elderly shut=ins without a support system are increasing in number. We have become so embedded with instant communication we may forgot about those who do not have this. They may have a phone to call incase of emergency or neighbors to check on them but that may be it. Wonder if problems like these may increase with time.

  7. This seems to raise the question about elderly populations as people in the United States as the nation gets older. More and more we are finding situations of elderly shut ins with little support systems living in their homes. They do not have email or technology. They have access to a phone and perhaps a neighbor to check on them periodically. But as we grow more reliable on technology like email, will this population be even more disconnected as time goes on?

  8. Cal,

    Are you familiar with Myers-Briggs personality testing? I think it has special relevance to your writings about deep work and avoiding distraction.

    One of the 16 Myers-Briggs types (INTJs) are especially known for hating meetings, phone calls, etc. It pulls them out of their heads and destroys their focus. As a result, INTJs tend to cluster in fields that not only allow, but cherish deep work: academia, R&D labs, law, etc. In fact, I would venture to say the majority of this blog’s readers are INTJs or INTPs.

    I recommend the book “Gifts Differing” for a thorough treatment of personality type. There’s a lot of interesting data about where differently-typed people cluster, what helps them thrive, and what pulls them off course.


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