One of the earliest exponents of the theory was born here

I wanted to end this series with a flourish and just as I was scratching my head, along came an e-mail from Prof. M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Did I know that Chennai had a connection with the God particle aka the Higgs boson, recently discovered at CERN, Geneva?

“Though it is named after Peter Higgs, the prediction that such a fundamental particle may exist was made by several others independently around the same time in 1964. One of these was Prof. Thomas Walter Bannerman Kibble (FRS) of Imperial College London. Prof. Kibble was born in Madras in 1932,” he wrote. He also added that Kibble’s father Walter Frederick Kibble, taught at Madras Christian College. This sent me scurrying to Life and Legacy of Madras Christian College, 1837-1978 by Joshua Kalapati and Ambrose Jeyasekaran T. And sure enough, the details were there.

Kibble Senior joined the science department of MCC in 1924 and was, according to the book, “its human face for the next 37 years until he retired in 1961.” He was a mathematics tripos from Cambridge and then took a doctorate in statistics from Edinburgh University. “A multi-faceted personality, Kibble was editor of the college magazine, president of the astronomical society, a versatile painter, a keen naturalist, and an active agent at Pammal Leprosy Centre,” the book said.

He and his wife, the book said, “were interested in all things bright and beautiful, all things wise and wonderful.” He was responsible for the creation of a sundial on the MCC campus.

His son, Thomas Kibble, qualified at Imperial College London and Edinburgh University. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he is known for his work in particle physics, in particular, the Higgs-Kibble mechanism which imparts mass to elementary particles.

The connection with Madras goes back further. Thomas Kibble’s maternal grandparents, the Bannermans, lived for 30 years in Madras. Grandfather William Burney Bannerman was in the Indian Medical Service and was the surgeon-general of Madras before moving to Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory. He was honoured with the Companion of the Star of India during the Imperial Durbar of 1911. Bannerman is known for one of the most comprehensive accounts of the history of plague in India.

Bannerman’s wife, and Thomas’ grandmother Helen, was a celebrity in her own right. Daughter of an army chaplain in Scotland, she married Bannerman in 1889 and moved to Madras. After the children were packed off to England for education, she began to write pictorial letters to them. This talent was recognized and she was induced by friends to take up writing. Her stories for children were largely based on Indian themes. The plots were in Tamil or south Indian settings and celebrated native intelligence and ingenuity.

And so, Chennai or Madras can stake a claim to a role in God’s particle. Until next Madras Week then…

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