Peter Higgs, a Giant of Particle Physics, Dies at 94

Peter Higgs, a Giant of Particle Physics, Dies at 94

The Nobel Prize-winning theorist’s prediction of the Higgs boson sparked a half-century quest of discovery that reshaped physics—and our understanding of the universe

Portrait of Peter Higgs in blue shirt and glasses both hands and apart.

Colleagues remember Peter Higgs as an inspirational scientist, who remained humble despite his fame.

Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

Few scientists have enjoyed as much fame in recent years as British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, the namesake of the boson that was discovered in 2012, who died on 8 April, aged 94.

It was 60 years ago when Higgs first suggested how an elementary particle of unusual properties could pervade the universe in the form of an invisible field, giving other elementary particles their masses. Several other physicists independently thought of this mechanism around the same time, including François Englert, now at the Free University of Brussels. The particle was a crucial element of the theoretical edifice that physicists were building in those years, which later became known as the standard model of particles and fields.

Two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland — ATLAS and the CMS — confirmed Higgs’ predictions when they announced the discovery of the Higgs boson half a century later. It was the last missing component of the standard model, and Higgs and Englert shared a Nobel Prize in 2013 for predicting its existence. Physicists at the LHC continue to learn about the properties of the Higgs boson, but some researchers say that only a dedicated collider that can produce the particle in copious amounts — dubbed a ‘Higgs factory’ — will enable them to gain a profound understanding of its role.

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Inspiring figure

“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,” said Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of CERN in an obituary posted on the organization’s website; Gianotti who announced the Higgs boson’s discovery to the world at CERN. “I am very saddened, and I will miss him sorely.”

Many physicists took to X, formerly Twitter, to pay tribute to Higgs and share their favourite memories of him. “RIP to Peter Higgs. The search for the Higgs boson was my primary focus for the first part of my career. He was a very humble man that contributed something immensely deep to our understanding of the universe,” posted Kyle Cranmer, physicist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and previously a senior member of the Higgs search team at the CMS.

I was fortunate to meet Peter Higgs in 2013 (days after the Nobel prize announcement). He was modest as he told a group of PhD students the history of the boson theory. Afterwards, I was very lucky to get my copy of the New York Times with the discovery signed by him,” said Clara Nellist, a physicist at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the ATLAS particle-discovery collaboration.

A career highlight was helping Peter into a cab after the Collider exhibition launch @sciencemuseum in 2013 with a carrier bag of special-edition beer marking his recent Nobel,” posted Harry Cliff, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK.

“He disliked the limelight but was comfortable with friends and colleagues,” Frank Close, a physicist at the University of Oxford, UK, and author of the book Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass (2022), said in a statement to the UK Science Media Centre. “His boson took 48 years to appear, and when the Nobel was announced, he had disappeared to his favourite sea food bar in Leith.”

An exciting journey

Higgs’ work continues to be of fundamental importance, said physicist Sinead Farrington at the University of Edinburgh. “We’re still on an exciting journey to figure out whether some further predictions are true, namely whether the Higgs boson interacts with itself in the predicted way, and whether it might decay to other beyond the Standard Model particles,” she told the Science Media Centre.

For physicist and science writer Matt Strassler, Higgs’ death represents ‘the end of an era’. “Higgs was a fortunate scientist: he lived to see his insight at age 30 turn up in experiments 50 years later,” he posted on X. “His role and influence in our understanding of the #universe will be remembered for millennia.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on April 10, 2024.

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