Peter Higgs: a truly British scientist

Peter Higgs in front of the touring LHC roadshow
(Credit: STFC)

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1929, much of Peter Higgs’ childhood was spent in Birmingham and Bristol where he attended Halesowen Grammar School and Cotham Grammar School.

His passion for maths and physics was kindled by an earlier alumnus of Cotham Grammar School, Paul Dirac, who made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.

Observation of Higgs Boson
(Credit: CERN)

At the age of 17, Peter Higgs moved to City of London School where he studied maths. He remained in London for his university education, graduating with a first class degree in physics from King’s College London in 1950, a Masters in 1951 and a PhD in 1954.

His first post-doctoral position took him to the University of Edinburgh and this was followed by posts at Imperial College London and UCL.

In 1960, Peter Higgs returned to the University of Edinburgh, as a lecturer at the Tait Institute of Mathematical Physics.

In 1964, Peter Higgs submitted a paper to the journal Physical Review Letter proposing a mechanism that gives mass to fundamental particles called quarks and leptons in the fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The paper predicted a new, massive, spin-zero boson which became known as the Higgs boson.

Prof. Peter Higgs visits the CMS experiment
(Credit: CERN)

Peter Higgs continued his career in theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh, becoming a Reader in 1970 and a Chair of Theoretical Physics in 1980. He retired in 1996, becoming Emeritus Professor.

In 1984, a 27km long tunnel for the Large Electron Positron Collider was under construction at CERN. Scientists at CERN and across Europe were already proposing the experiment that would follow LEP. The Large Hadron Collider would enable physicists to test a number of particle physics theories, including the Higgs mechanism.

In July 2012, CERN confirmed that two experiments on the Large Hadron Collider (ATLAS and CMS) had discovered a Higgs-like boson. Further data analysis confirmed that the boson is consistent with Peter Higgs’ predictions, but more data is required to establish whether more than one variation of the Higgs boson exists.

Peter Higgs
(Credit: STFC)

Peter Higgs is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society, and the Institute of Physics. He has received numerous awards including the Rutherford Medal and Prize, the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize, and the Wolf Prize.

He has received honorary degrees from the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, King's College London, Swansea and University College London.

Both the cities of Edinburgh and Bristol have also recognised his achievements; in 2011 he was awarded the Edinburgh Award for his outstanding contribution to the city and in 2013 he was granted the Freedom of the City of Bristol.

In the 2013 New Year Honours List he was appointed a Companion of Honour.

Peter Higgs continues to share his passion for particle physics by engaging with school and university students.

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