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Peter Higgs, physicist who shed light on dark matter, dies at 94

Peter Higgs, physicist who shed light on dark matter, dies at 94
Peter Higgs (Photor: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 2013 for his discovery decades earlier of a theoretical mechanism to explain the origin of mass in the universe, has died. He was 94.   

He died on 8 April at his home, according to the University of Edinburgh, where he was professor emeritus. Higgs “was a remarkable individual — a truly gifted scientist whose vision and imagination have enriched our knowledge of the world that surrounds us”, said Peter Mathieson, the university’s principal and vice chancellor.

Higgs shared his Nobel prize with Belgian physicist Francois Englert for proposing the existence of what became known as the Higgs boson particle and the invisible field in space that gives mass to matter. The discovery of the elemental particle was announced in 2012 by European nuclear research body CERN after the boson was detected in the Large Hadron Collider, an underground laboratory near Geneva that smashes protons together at almost the speed of light and records data on their interaction. 

The breakthrough corroborated the ideas of Higgs published almost half a century earlier, when they were dismissed in the journal Physics Letters as having “no obvious relevance to physics”. 

His work, along with similar predictions made independently by Englert and his colleague Robert Brout, led to one of the most significant scientific findings of the past century. The “God particle”, a term used in US physicist Leon Lederman’s book of the same name to describe the boson field’s creative qualities, may offer insights into dark matter and dark energy, which make up about 96% of the universe and remain a mystery to cosmologists.

The Higgs boson, which decays almost instantly, completed the Standard Model of particle physics that explains how matter holds together. Without mass, particles would fly off into space, and nothing could take shape. 

“This brilliant achievement is richly deserved recognition of Peter Higgs’ lifetime of dedicated research and his passion for science,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said after the announcement of Higgs’s Nobel Prize. 

Confirmation of the boson’s existence was the work of thousands of scientists on the competing Atlas and CMS experiment teams at CERN. It involved making particles collide in a 27km circular super-magnetised tunnel to recreate the conditions after the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago. The project cost at least $10-billion.

It is “probably the largest and the most complex machine ever constructed by humans,” according to the Nobel Foundation.

Modest man

Higgs shed a tear when CERN’s scientists erupted in applause at a press conference revealing their discovery on 4 July 2012. The father of the Higgs boson was as modest in the limelight as his simple lifestyle suggested: He lived in a small flat in Edinburgh, had no television and used public transport, according to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

“I regarded it as cheers for the home team, and the home team were the two experiments, Atlas and CMS,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “Maybe they were cheering me, too, but that was a minor issue.”

Higgs said the credit for predicting the mass-forming mechanism belonged to six physicists who contributed three papers on the subject in 1964: Englert and Brout, who wrote the first article, Higgs, and then Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble. 

The Nobel Foundation, which allows three recipients of a prize and none posthumously, chose Higgs and Englert as winners.

Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeast England on May 29, 1929, to an English father and a Scottish mother. His father was a sound engineer for the BBC who lived apart from the family for much of Higgs’s childhood.

Higgs, who suffered from asthma and was partly schooled at home by his mother, lived in Birmingham and Bristol, where he attended Cotham Grammar School until 1946 and developed an interest in the work of physicist Paul Dirac. He graduated with first-class honours in physics from King’s College, University of London, in 1950, and completed a master’s and a doctorate on molecular vibrations.

Higgs held research fellowships in Edinburgh and London before becoming a lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh in 1960. He wrote his ground-breaking paper after developing the theory while walking in the hills around Edinburgh. Higgs was joined by the five other physicists who held similar views about the application of quantum field theory, considered outdated in physics at the time, in their quest to solve the problem of particle mass. 

In 1980, Higgs became a professor of theoretical physics at the university, a post he held for 16 years.

Higgs, Brout and Englert in 2004 won the Wolf Prize, administered by the Wolf Foundation in Israel, and the American Physical Society’s JJ Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics in 2010, along with the five other scientists who contributed to work on the Higgs mechanism.

“It’s very nice to be right sometimes,” Higgs said after winning the Nobel Prize. 

The Higgs boson was the subject of “Particle Fever”, a documentary that followed CERN scientists on the path to their groundbreaking discovery. 

Higgs married an American linguist, Jody Williamson, whom he met at a university staff meeting in Edinburgh. The couple had two sons, Christopher and Jonathan, before their divorce in the early 1970s.


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  • Rama Chandra says:

    I honestly thought Higgs had died decades ago. It must have been strange to change the understanding of the universe so early and then see it unfolds for decades after.

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