Peter Higgs, a British physicist and Nobel Prize winner whose musings on the origins of mass launched a nearly five-decade, multibillion-dollar search for a subatomic particle – later known as the Higgs boson – that was said to hold the keys to understanding the nature of the universe, died Monday at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was 94.

Professor Peter Higgs at the Science Museum, London in 2013. Sean Dempsey/PA via Associated Press, file

The University of Edinburgh announced his death in a statement but did not cite a cause.

Higgs’ ideas about the creation of mass in the universe, which he developed as a young theorist during the early 1960s, employed mathematical calculations to propose an explanation of nothing less audacious than why we all exist: how the atoms that make up stars, planets and people – everything in the universe – came to be.

His theory stipulated the existence of a then-undiscovered particle. In tongue-in-cheek tribute to its role in the apparent explanation of creation, it later came to be called the God Particle.

Five others published similar ideas at almost exactly the same time. It would require thousands more scientists, working in vast multinational collaborations, to eventually find the Higgs boson.

Still, it was the self-effacing Higgs whose name came to be identified with the revolutionary idea. Only one other theorist shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics with him.


By the mid-20th century, physicists were closing in on many secrets of the cosmos – Albert Einstein and other scientists now understood gravitation and relativity, and how quantum fields governed the behavior of photons (particles that make up light) and electrons (which create electricity). However, the theories didn’t explain everything the scientists wanted to know about how the world worked at the subatomic level.

Scholars still didn’t understand, for instance, why elementary particles have mass. Their quantum theory calculations suggested that the symmetries that seem to govern the behavior of the universe couldn’t apply to massive particles that form atoms, such as protons and neutrons. But mass had to exist. Without it, atomic components would fly away from one another, like particles of light. The math just didn’t make sense.

The Japanese American physicist and future Nobel laureate Yoichiro Nambu suggested in 1961 that some undetermined break in one of the symmetries might create mass. In 1964, as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Higgs offered a possible explanation for how.

Reputedly during a ramble through the Scottish Highlands, he hypothesized that the symmetry is broken because the universe is pervaded by an invisible field, now known as the Higgs field. The field interacts with some subatomic particles, slowing them down much as an encounter with sticky molasses bogs down a fly, and thus imbuing them with mass.

Higgs detailed his calculations in two academic papers. The first was published by Physics Letters, a journal published by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. The second was rejected by the journal. One editor scoffed that it was “of no obvious relevance to physics.”

Undeterred and realizing he needed to pump up the “sales talk,” Higgs tweaked the second paper, raising the possibility of not only the mysterious field but also of a particle that was associated with it. The boson paper was published by the U.S. journal Physical Review Letters, which also published similar ideas by Robert Brout and François Englert of Belgium, and the Anglo-American team of Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble.


A landmark event in the development of Higgs’ theory came with a 1967 paper by physicist Steven Weinberg, who proposed a complete model that joined two of the major forces – the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force – with Higgs’ model for generating mass.

Weinberg, then of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and two other scientists won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for work that led to the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which remains scientists’ best explanation of the subatomic workings of the universe.

As scientists realized how the Standard Model relied on the Higgs mechanism, Higgs’ work received more attention. Physicists realized that if there was a Higgs field, it should be possible to produce the particle that was associated with it. It could be done by smashing together subatomic particles at almost unimaginable energies.

As the thinking went, failing to find the Higgs boson would challenge everything science thought it knew about the universe. But finding it would confirm the Standard Model.

The hunt for the particle became a scientific obsession. Over nearly half a century, governments would spend fortunes building and operating giant particle colliders. This effort gave rise to CERN’s $10 billion machine near Geneva. It was able to produce collisions at energies that scientists thought were high enough to make the boson appear.

Higgs, then retired as a professor, thought it would work. If it didn’t, he told the Times of London, “I should be very, very puzzled. If it’s not there, I no longer understand what I think I understand.”


Amid great jubilation, on July 4, 2012, two research groups reported their results. Smashing together beams of protons at nearly the speed of light and studying the debris produced, the teams said, they had unearthed conclusive evidence that the elusive Higgs boson really did exist.

Higgs was present in Geneva for the announcement. As the details were set out, he wiped a tear from his eye. A year later, he shared the Nobel with Englert; Brout, Englert’s research partner, had died in 2011 and was thus ineligible for the award.

“Peter Higgs came upon an unfinished jigsaw puzzle at just the right time and defined what the centerpiece should look like,” said theoretical physicist Robert Garisto, managing editor of Physical Review Letters. “Forty-eight years later, they found it.”

Peter Ware Higgs was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on May 29, 1929. His father worked as a sound engineer for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the family was often on the move.

Initially, Higgs thought he would be a chemist, but he soon found out he was “hopeless in the lab” and instead decided to pursue theoretical physics. After earning three degrees from King’s College London, including a doctorate in physics in 1954, he soon landed at the University of Edinburgh. He retired from the college in 1996.

As a young man, Higgs, a supporter of liberal political causes, met the American linguist Jody Williamson during a meeting of an anti-nuclear-proliferation group. They married in the early 1960s but separated about a decade later – in part, Higgs said, because of his obsession with work.


They had two sons and remained close until Williamson’s death in 2008. Higgs said their split marked the decline of his research career. “After the breakup of my marriage, I think I just lost touch,” he told a reporter in 2008. “I couldn’t keep up.”

Survivors include his sons, Jonny and Chris, and two grandchildren.

In his later years, Higgs called his 1964 paper his “one important idea” and admitted freely that he was not involved in the particle hunt at CERN.

Higgs was a media-averse introvert, as elusive as his particle. He frequently expressed discomfort with adulation, even reportedly turning down a knighthood. The New York Times once called him “the J.D. Salinger of physics,” referring to the famously reclusive writer.

On the day Higgs won the Nobel, he deliberately slipped away for lunch and a visit to an art gallery, determined to avoid calls from the prize committee and pestering from the press. His disappearance delayed the announcement of the physics prize by an hour, leading co-winner Englert to fear that their discoveries had not received the nod.

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 any of the other scientists who came up with the idea at the same time.

But he eventually conceded, “Getting rid of the name ‘Higgs boson’ will be difficult.”

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