Profile: Prof Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame (2024)

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Profile: Prof Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame (1)

By Samira Ahmed

Presenter, Profile, BBC Radio 4

Three years ago when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern), few people outside his field had heard of Peter Higgs. But as scientists there <itemMeta>news/science-environment-16158374</itemMeta> which bears his name, Prof Higgs is now famous around the world.

This quiet octogenarian has waited patiently for the world to catch up with his ideas.

His theory about the existence of the elusive particle - or boson - came in 1964, in a moment of inspiration while walking in the Cairngorms. He wrote two papers about it.

The second was initially rejected by the journal Physics Letters, which annoyed him. He later said they clearly did not understand him, but it was finally published not long after in Physical Review Letters, another leading publication.

Reluctant fame

By the early 1970s Higgs' name was being associated in academic papers and conferences with the theories that he and teams in Belgium and London had been researching independently.

And the particle itself was to acquire Higgs' name. A former colleague, Oxford Emeritus Prof Ken Peach, recalls returning from a conference where the fellow scientists were referring constantly to Peter Higgs: "I saw Peter in the coffee lounge and said 'Hey Peter! You're famous!'"

His reaction was typically low-key, and he gave a diffident smile.

"Peter is a very unassuming man, and I think for many years he was somewhat embarrassed by all of the attention. I think over the years he has become more comfortable with it," says Prof Peach.

Still, not overly so.

"He's very self-effacing," says the science journalist Ian Sample, author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.

"He still sometimes squirms when you call it the 'Higgs boson' in his presence.

"He refers to it sometimes as 'the boson which bears my name' in an apologetic way. He realises that his name has gone onto something that was really the result of many people's work."

Peter Higgs was born in Newcastle in 1929. His father was a BBC sound engineer.

When his family moved to Bristol, he proved a brilliant student at Cotham Grammar School, winning many prizes - except in physics.

But one day, sitting through a dull assembly, a famous name on the honour board of ex-pupils caught his eye: the <link> <caption>Nobel prize-winning physicist, Paul Dirac</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link>.

"Peter was really good at reading around subjects, and wouldn't just go to lessons and learn what the teachers say," says Ian Sample.

"So, Peter really got into Dirac and what the issues of physics were at the time."

After school, Higgs read physics at King's College London, studying the then brand-new theoretical option.

Fellow student Michael Fisher - now a professor at the University of Maryland - remembers Higgs excelling in the first-ever exam in the subject: "As I recall he did the problem in quantum mechanics. It was based on a paper that had been published recently... and by all accounts he did a better job on the problem that was set to him in a three-hour exam than the original author of the scientific paper had done."

Higgs was awarded first class honours in 1950. He applied for a lectureship at King's College, but it was his friend Michael Fisher who got the job, and so Higgs headed to Scotland.

Going it alone

"As a 31-year-old researcher at the University of Edinburgh, people called him a fuddy-duddy because he was working on something that was seen as uncool," says Ian Sample.

"It was a type of physics that people just thought was going nowhere. And he just decided 'No, you don't understand it as well as I do, and I think it's got something and I think it's worth pursuing'.

"And if he hadn't pursued it - and he was pretty much alone in doing it, certainly in the UK - he wouldn't have got his theory, it wouldn't have happened, we would never have heard of him."

Outside of academic circles, though, Higgs was not well known.

For the next 20 years, he continued writing and teaching but there were difficulties in both his professional and his personal life. He had married, but split from his wife a few years after their two sons were born.

And some friends feel Peter Higgs did not make the kind of impact that might be expected of a scientist of his calibre.

"I wouldn't say he was shy. I might say that he was a little too retiring perhaps for the good of his own career," says Prof Michael Fisher.

"You might say that he would be much better known ahead of time if he'd had a little more inclination."

Peter Higgs retired from the University of Edinburgh in 2006, and continues to watch developments at Cern from a distance - without a TV, or a computer, and rarely answering the phone, though keeping up-to-date through the latest physics journals.

He continues to inspire a younger generation of physicists, such as Dr Victoria Martin, who was in his last undergraduate class at Edinburgh, and who was with him as Edinburgh University staff gathered to watch the announcement at Cern that the Higgs boson had possibly been identified.

"I was sitting in front of him, and he seemed quite pleasantly happy with the news that was coming out of Cern - I was probably more excited than he was. He was quietly happy."

"You never get a sense of real excitement - 'They must find it, please let them find it' - from him," says Ian Sample.

"He says things like 'I have to hope my doctor keeps me alive long enough for them to find it.'"

Nearly 50 years after the paper on what was to be the Higgs boson was first rejected, Prof Peach sees a happy symmetry for Peter Higgs, in seeing the world's largest laboratory prove what he knew was right all along: "One of the things I'd say about Peter is that his character is completely consistent, and I think the drive to understand how the universe works is also consistent with the desire to make sure that the universe itself is a fit and decent place to live."

<link> <caption>Profile</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link> <bold> was broadcast on Saturday, 17 December at 19:00 GMT on </bold> <link> <caption>BBC Radio 4</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link> <bold>. Listen again via the </bold> <link> <caption>Radio 4 website</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link> <bold> or download the Profile </bold> <link> <caption>Podcast</caption> <url href="" platform="highweb"/> </link>.

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Profile: Prof Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame (2024)


Profile: Prof Peter Higgs of Higgs boson fame? ›

Peter Ware Higgs CH FRS FRSE HonFInstP (29 May 1929 – 8 April 2024) was a British theoretical physicist, professor at the University of Edinburgh, and Nobel laureate in Physics

Nobel laureate in Physics
The Nobel Prize in Physics (Swedish: Nobelpriset i fysik) is an annual award given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for those who have made the most outstanding contributions to mankind in the field of physics. › wiki › Nobel_Prize_in_Physics
for his work on the mass of subatomic particles.

What is Peter Higgs famous for? ›

Peter Higgs (born May 29, 1929, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England—died April 8, 2024, Edinburgh, Scotland) was a British physicist who was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for proposing the existence of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that is the carrier particle of a field that endows all ...

Why was Higgs rejected? ›

Higgs further developed his ideas in a subsequent paper, which outlined what would eventually be recognized as “the Higgs model.” The publication Physics Letters initially rejected the paper due to a perceived lack of urgency to publicize the theory.

What did Stephen Hawking say about the Higgs boson? ›

The answer to the question lies in what Hawking said in 2013 when the discovery of the Higgs boson was confirmed. He is quoted several places as saying “[p]hysics would be far more interesting if [the Higgs boson] had not been found”.

Did Peter Higgs work with anyone? ›

Later, Higgs and other theorists developed a model that overcame this difficulty. The others physicists were Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, Tom Kibble, Robert Brout and François Englert. Englert would go on to share the 2013 Nobel prize in physics with Higgs.

What is so special about the Higgs boson? ›

The Higgs boson is the fundamental particle associated with the Higgs field, a field that gives mass to other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks. A particle's mass determines how much it resists changing its speed or position when it encounters a force.

Is Peter Higgs religious? ›

Higgs was an atheist, and like many physicists loathed the term “God Particle,” telling Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2008 that he found it “embarrassing.” He also frequently seemed uncomfortable that the “so-called Higgs boson” and the “so-called Higgs field,” as he termed them, had been named for him and not for ...

What is Peter Higgs' IQ? ›

Quora (2015): reasoned guesses (Ѻ) put his IQ at 155-175. — 5. Peter Higgs. (1929-)

Why is Higgs so powerful? ›

High Intelligence: Higgs is a gifted intellect, so wise and sophisticated that he is knowing how to utilize his intelligence against Sam and other people he comes across. Leadership: Higgs is also an extremely gifted and powerful leader to the hom*o Demens, using them as sort of "pawns" to advance his agenda.

What is the problem with the Higgs boson? ›

For our understanding of physics to work, the Higgs cannot have a spin. But it's still strange for a fundamental particle to be spin-zero. So, theorists have come up with ways that it might not be. For example, it could be that the Higgs is not actually a fundamental particle at all.

Who solved the Higgs boson? ›

The 2013 Nobel Prize in physics is awarded to Professors François Englert and Peter Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ...

What would happen if the Higgs field collapsed? ›

If it became destabilized, it could create chaos in the universe, possibly swallowing up everything in its path, leaving nothing but a cold, dark void, New Scientist reports. If the Higgs Boson lost stability, it would severely disrupt physics, chemistry, and life.

What has the Higgs boson been called? ›

In the media, the Higgs boson has often been called the "God particle" after the 1993 book The God Particle by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. The name has been criticised by physicists, including Higgs.

Where is Peter Higgs now? ›

Peter Higgs, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who proposed a new particle known as the Higgs boson, has died. Higgs, 94, who was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2013 for his work in 1964 showing how the boson helped bind the universe together by giving particles their mass, died at home in Edinburgh on Monday.

Does the Higgs boson still exist? ›

With a mass of more than 120 times that of the proton, the Higgs boson is the second-heaviest particle known today. This large mass, combined with an extremely short lifetime (10-22 seconds) means that the particle cannot be found in Nature – its existence can only be verified by producing it in the lab.

Was Peter Higgs knighted? ›

Higgs turned down a knighthood in 1999, but in 2012, he accepted membership of the Order of the Companions of Honour. He later said that he only accepted the order because he was wrongly assured that the award was the gift of the Queen alone.

When did Peter Higgs contribute to the atomic theory? ›

Independently of one another, in 1964 both Peter Higgs and the team of François Englert and Robert Brout proposed a theory about the existence of a particle that explains why other particles have a mass. In 2012, two experiments conducted at the CERN laboratory confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle.

Who is the father of particle physics? ›

Murray Gell-Mann (/ˈmʌri ˈɡɛl ˈmæn/; September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019) was an American theoretical physicist who played a preeminent role in the development of the theory of elementary particles.

What nickname did the Higgs particle gain? ›

In the media, the Higgs boson has often been called the "God particle" after the 1993 book The God Particle by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman.

What did Higgs and his team discover? ›

The discovery of the Higgs boson opened a whole new branch of particle physics, as researchers began to study its properties. In the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is unique: it has zero spin (making it the only fundamental particle with this characteristic), no electric charge and no strong force interaction.


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