Physicist Peter Higgs, Who Prompted a Decades-Long Search for a Tiny Particle, Dies at 94

The Nobel Prize winner predicted the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle that scientists successfully discovered in 2012, explaining how particles get their mass and underlying a key theory of the universe

Peter Higgs stands in front of a photograph of the Large Hadron Collider
Peter Higgs stands in front of a photograph of the Large Hadron Collider at the Science Museum in London in 2013. The year before, researchers smashing protons together at the collidor had discovered evidence of a fundamental particle, which Higgs had proposed nearly 50 years prior. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Peter Higgs, who proposed the existence of a fundamental particle that underlies matter and life in the universe, has died at age 94, the University of Edinburgh confirms in a statement. The physicist died peacefully at his home on April 8 after a brief illness, per the university.

“A giant of particle physics has left us,” John Ellis, a particle physicist at King’s College London, tells Physics World’s Michael Banks.

The renowned physicist came up with a key theory that explains how some tiny particles get their mass. In 1964, Higgs, as well as other researchers in independent work, proposed that an invisible field permeates all of space, and various particles smaller than atoms—such as quarks and leptons—acquire mass when they come into contact with this field.

Higgs suggested such a field would be accompanied by a corresponding particle—and his prediction launched a decades-long search for it. Scientists dubbed this elusive particle the Higgs boson. (In 1993, the physicist Leon Lederman called it the “God particle,” a name that Higgs, an atheist, did not like—but it helped bring recognition to the idea nonetheless.)

Almost 50 years later, in a 2012 experiment using the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Large Hadron Collider, other scientists discovered a particle that fit the parameters of the proposed Higgs boson—a huge breakthrough in the field. The following year, Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with François Englert, one of the other researchers who conceived of the particle.

“Without his theory, atoms could not exist and radioactivity would be a force as strong as electricity and magnetism,” Ellis adds to Physics World. “His prediction of the existence of the particle that bears his name was a deep insight, and its discovery at CERN in 2012 was a crowning moment that confirmed his understanding of the way the universe works.”

There are four fundamental forces in the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force (which holds together protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei) and the weak force (which plays a role in nuclear decay). The Standard Model of Particle Physics aims to tie together these forces and the fundamental particles, though it still has its limits, such as being unable to explain gravity.

But the Standard Model would only hold together if particles didn’t have mass. As a result, the whole theory was threatened. But Higgs’ proposed field allowed for particles to acquire mass, explaining why particles carrying the weak force have mass, while photons—particles of light—do not.

Englert and Robert Brout proposed a similar idea weeks before Higgs did, and Tom Kibble, Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik came up with a related theory shortly after, according to the New York Times’ Dennis Overbye. But none of the others proposed the existence of a massive boson, as Higgs did. (Brout died in 2011 and thus was not eligible to receive the Nobel.)

Researchers at CERN searched for the Higgs boson by smashing together protons traveling at nearly the speed of light in the Large Hadron Collider, hoping to yield a new particle. The Higgs boson is so hard to detect, because it almost instantly decays into other particles. But on July 4, 2012, the team could say with confidence that they’d spotted signs of a new particle weighing about 120 times as much as a proton, making it the second-heaviest particle known.

“Peter Higgs came upon an unfinished jigsaw puzzle at just the right time and defined what the centerpiece should look like,” theoretical physicist Robert Garisto tells the Washington Post’s Eryn Brown. “Forty-eight years later, they found it.”

Higgs was born May 29, 1929, in Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. He studied physics at King’s College London and spent most of his career at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He described the Higgs mechanism in two 1964 papers. One of the papers was originally rejected, and when he revised it, he added the pivotal prediction concerning the Higgs particle.

“Besides his outstanding contributions to particle physics, Peter was a very special person, an immensely inspiring figure for physicists around the world, a man of rare modesty, a great teacher and someone who explained physics in a very simple yet profound way,” CERN’s director-general Fabiola Gianotti says in a statement. “An important piece of CERN’s history and accomplishments is linked to him. I am very saddened, and I will miss him sorely.”

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