Peter Higgs

On this date in 1929, Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. Higgs graduated with honors in physics in 1950 from King’s College, University of London. He earned his master of science the next year, and his PhD in 1954, both from King’s. In his early thirties, Higgs began his career as lecturer in mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1970 was promoted to reader. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1974, and Personal Chair of Theoretical Physics in 1980. Higgs was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983 and Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1991. Some of his numerous awards include the Rutherford Medal of the Institute of Physics (1984, shared with Tom Kibble), the Saltire Society & Royal Bank of Scotland Scottish Science Award (1990), the Royal Society of Edinburgh James Scott Prize Lectureship (1993), the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics (1997), the High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society (1997, shared with Robert Brout and Francois Englert), and the Wolf Foundation Prize in Physics (2004, also shared with Brout and Englert). For his immense contributions to physics, Higgs holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Bristol (1997), Edinburgh (1998), Glasgow (2002), King’s College London (2009) and University College London (2010).

In the 1960s, Higgs proposed the existence of a single particle responsible for imparting mass to all matter immediately following the Big Bang (The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2007). The Higgs boson, the scientific term for the particle, radically altered the field of physics, such that Higgs, according to Time Magazine, ranks with physics giants like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Democritus (“Higgs Boson: A Ghost in the Machine,” by Eben Harrell, Aug. 8, 2008). Based on Higgs’ theory, scientists theorized a quantum field, known as the Higgs field, through which initially weightless particles move and acquire their mass. For the last thirty years, a multi-billion dollar effort, including the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, has been underway to find the Higgs boson particle. The LHC , the most powerful particle accelerator ever constructed, cost $6 billion and 25 years to plan. “Scientists . . . hope the [Large Hadron Collider] will produce clear signs of the boson, dubbed the ‘God particle’ by some, to the displeasure of Higgs, an atheist” (Reuters, “Key scientist sure ‘God particle’ will be found soon,” by Robert Evans, April 7, 2008). Higgs, who retired in 1996, and his wife Jo, an American linguist, have two sons. 

Photo of Nobel Laureates 2013 press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in December 2013 by Bengt Nyman under CC 2.0

"I wish he hadn't done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I'm an atheist. . . "

—Peter Higgs, on the scientist who nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” in The Guardian (U.K.), “The god of small things,” by Ian Sample, Nov. 16, 2007

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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