The story of Peter Higgs: A groundbreaking theory, the discovery of the Higgs boson and the Nobel Prize 50 years later

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Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs passed away on Monday 8 April at the age of 94 at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“In addition to his extraordinary contributions to particle physics, he was a very special person, an inspirational figure and possessed a rare humility,” said Prof Fabiola Gianotti, Director General of CERN. He was a great teacher who could explain physics in a simple yet profound way.”

“One of the giants of particle physics has passed away. His prediction of the existence of the particle that bears his name was a profound insight, and its confirmation at CERN in 2012 was a turning point in how the universe works.”

Higgs spent most of his professional life at the University of Edinburgh, which established the Higgs Centre for Theoretical Physics in his honour. “He died peacefully at home after a short illness,” the university, where he worked for nearly fifty years, said in a statement. And described him as ‘a great teacher and mentor who inspired young scientists’.

The Higgs boson was named after him

Higgs was a 35-year-old assistant professor at the university in 1964 when he proposed the existence of a new particle that explained how other particles acquired mass.

The Higgs boson, also known to the public as the ‘God particle’ but known by his name in the scientific world, would become a key element of the Standard Model, which summarises all we know about how elementary particles shape nature and the universe.

Exactly half a century later, on 4 July 2012, he received a standing ovation when the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva announced that the particle had finally been ‘confirmed’. In a webcast from the laboratory, the world watched as she took out a handkerchief and wiped away her tears. “It’s really incredible that this has happened in my lifetime,” he said.

Politely declining to attend the after-party, Higgs celebrated with a can of beer on the aeroplane and headed straight home. CERN, which had shelves of empty champagne bottles in the control room to commemorate major breakthroughs, asked if he could have the can, but Higgs had already thrown it in the bin.

The story of Peter Higgs: A groundbreaking theory, the discovery of the Higgs boson and the Nobel Prize 50 years later 1
The Higgs touring the Large Hadron Collider exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Photo: Getty Images

In 2013, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded the Nobel Prize, said at the time that the standard model of physics, which provides a scientific understanding of the universe, is based on the existence of a special kind of particle: The Higgs boson.

The statement continued: “It is there even when the universe seems empty. Without it, we would not exist, because particles gain mass by coming into contact with this field. The theory proposed by Englert and Higgs explains this process.”

An extremely shy man who disliked fanfare, Higgs had left home for a lunch of soup and trout on the day of the announcement, and learned of his Nobel win from a neighbour on his way home. He was a modest man who shunned the glamour of fame. He had no television, did not use e-mail or mobile phones.

‘I would not be productive enough in today’s academic system,’ he said

In 2013, on his way to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize, Professor Higgs told the Guardian that he would almost certainly have been dismissed had he not been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Emphasising that he doubted that a similar breakthrough could be achieved today because of the constant expectation of papers from academics, Higgs continued as follows:

It is hard to imagine that in the current climate I would have enough peace and quiet to do what I did in 1964. I wouldn’t get a job as an academic today, it’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be seen as productive enough.

Higgs published ‘very few’ papers after the publication in 1964 of his seminal work describing the mechanism by which subatomic matter gains mass.

Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle on 29 May 1929, the son of Thomas Ware Higgs and Gertrude (Coghill) Higgs. He grew up in Bristol. His father was a sound engineer at the BBC.

His interest in physics grew as he attended Cotham Grammar School, the same school as British theorist Paul Dirac, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. At the age of 17, he transferred to the City of London School, where he studied mathematics. A year later, he entered King’s College London and graduated in physics in 1947. He completed his doctorate in 1954 with his research on molecules and heat.

After periodic research posts at the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and University College London, he joined Edinburgh as a tenured lecturer in 1960.

In those years, he was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace. During the disarmament movement, he met and fell in love with fellow activist Jody Williamson. They married in 1963.

A groundbreaking theory

Adapting an idea used by Philip W. Anderson of Princeton to explain superconductivity, Higgs suggested that space is filled with an invisible energy field, a kind of ‘cosmic molasses’.

This field acted on some particles trying to move through it, like a group clinging to a celebrity trying to reach a bar, and gave them what we call mass. In some cases, he noted, a piece of this field could detach and emerge as a new particle. However, when his first paper on the subject was rejected, he rewrote it, ‘colouring it’ as he put it, and added a new paragraph emphasising the new particle that would eventually be called the ‘Higgs boson’.

This particle became a major event in 1967 when Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas declared it the key element in unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces. It became an even bigger deal when the Dutch theorist Gerardus’t Hooft proved in 1971 that the whole scheme made mathematical sense.

Physicist Benjamin Lee named the particle the ‘Higgs boson’ during a conference in 1972 (since Weinberg had first referred to Higgs’ paper in his paper). In fact, Higgs’ work later went in another direction. However, his paper remained decisive.

Not only did the name stick to the particle, it embarrassed the Higgs a little. He says with a laugh: “I called it the ‘A.B.E.G.H.H.K.H mechanism’, naming all the theorists who contributed to the theory (Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble and ‘t Hooft).”

Higgs lived in a fifth-floor flat in the historic New Town quarter of central Edinburgh, the birthplace of the great Scottish theorist Maxwell.

He continued to lecture until his retirement in 1996. In 1999 he turned down an offer of knighthood. In 2013, he explained the reason for this as follows: “Frankly, I have my doubts about the honours system. It is largely used for political purposes.”

In fact, he was a kind of walking monument to science even before he received the Nobel Prize and was awarded the 2011 Edinburgh Prize for his outstanding contribution to the city. The following year, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Professor Francois Englert and, like his idols Dirac and Maxwell, achieved immortality. However, it was not for him to be in the thick of the fray. On the day of the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics, he thought it would be good to leave the city for a while.

But unfortunately his car wouldn’t start. Stuck in the city, he decided to go for lunch. But on the way, a neighbour stopped him and told him he had won the prize.

“What prize?” he joked and walked away.

His linguist wife Jody Williamson passed away in 2008. He leaves behind two sons, Christopher (a computer scientist) and Jonathan (a musician), his daughter-in-law Suzanne and two grandchildren.

Prof Peter Mathieson, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, said following his death:

“Peter Higgs was an extraordinary man. He was a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination enriched our knowledge of the world. His pioneering work has influenced thousands of scientists and his legacy will continue to inspire future generations.”


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