Peter Higgs, daddy of the Higgs boson, dies at 94

The particle bearing his name lives on

Obituary In a world dominated by instant gratification, Peter Higgs, who died earlier this week, had to wait more than half of his 94-year lifetime to see his theoretical predictions confirmed, thereby changing our understanding of the universe.

Born in Northeast England in 1929, Higgs, who passed away today, first proposed a particle that could give mass to other matter in 1964. The idea, along with work from other theorists, became part of the standard model for particle physics, and was confirmed by Europe's Large Hadron Collider between 2012 and 2013. In 2013, he was jointly awarded the Nobel prize for physics, by which time his eponymous particle had become world-famous.

CERN, the European particle research organization, announced the discovery of the Higgs boson with great fanfare. However, Higgs seemed embarrassed by it and always emphasized that many others had contributed to the theory and published similar ideas.

Higgs's early schooling was interrupted as his father moved around the UK during the Second World War. Settling in Bristol, he attended Cotham Grammar School, where famous alumni include Paul Dirac, a pioneer of quantum mechanics who also won the Nobel Prize.

Initially, Higgs studied mathematics as an undergraduate before switching to physics and completing a degree, master's, and PhD at King's College London. Following several research posts, he settled as a lecturer at Edinburgh University from 1960 onward.

He began to exploit ideas in the mathematics of symmetry – and how it may be broken – to explain how massless particles might acquire mass.

In 1964, the Physical Review Letters published his paper proposing a new type of massive boson – one type of subatomic particle. Other theorists had been working along the same lines at this time, but the particle became known as the Higgs boson, even though it only existed in theory.

It took until July 2012 for experimentation to catch up, when CERN said its latest result suggested the existence of the Higgs boson with near certainty and one in 3.5 million chance it was a statistical fluke.

By September that year, the discovery took another small step with the acceptance by peer review in the Physics Letters B journal. By March 2013, CERN had munched through two and a half times more data than supported the initial discovery and confirmed the new particle looked more and more like a Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is associated with the Higgs field, which gives mass to other fundamental particles, such as electrons and quarks, in the so-called Standard Model. Not all particles have mass. The photon, which carries light, for example, has no rest mass.

In October 2013, Higgs and Belgium's Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the theory that contributed to the Higgs boson and Higgs field.

Higgs was reluctant to embrace late 20th-century technology. He was said to never use email or browse the World Wide Web. He was known for being shy and modest, but he also made some cheeky remarks. Physicist and media star Brian Cox recently hosted an episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast discussing the Higgs boson. He forgot to mention that Higgs had called him "a very skilled communicator" who might "cut corners."

Work on the Higgs boson did not end with its discovery. CERN is using the work to probe dark matter, an unknown substance which measures from astrophysics predict makes up 85 percent of the universe. Reluctant to put his name to the particle or not, Higgs's work is set to long outlive him. ®

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