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Physicist Peter Higgs, whose subatomic particle research changed the world, has died

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the University of Edinburgh announced the death of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, Higgs was a reclusive, brilliant researcher whose insights changed the world.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In 2013, Peter Higgs suspected he might win the Nobel Prize. The year before, physicists had discovered a particle with his name on it. It was called the Higgs boson, and it was fundamental to everything we know about the universe. Now, most people would wait by the phone for that call from Stockholm. Higgs went for a walk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER HIGGS: I made sure to go out at 11 in the morning with the expectation that the announcement would be maybe 11:30 or something like that.

BRUMFIEL: That's from a rare interview he did after winning the prize that day. He wasn't trying to avoid the Nobel committee, but he had zero interest in all the media hoopla that would come with the prize. It was a long journey to the Nobel for Higgs. He was born in 1929, in the British city of Newcastle upon Tyne. As a high school student, he was more of a chemistry and math guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HIGGS: I didn't find the physics that I was taught very interesting.

BRUMFIEL: But that changed when he realized that physics could explain the fundamental properties of the stuff were all made of - matter. In 1964, while working at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, he had his eureka moment. He proposed a fundamental particle that could explain why matter had mass. It was eventually named the Higgs boson.

SALLY DAWSON: If you didn't have the Higgs boson, everything would be massless. And if nothing had a mass, for example, atoms couldn't form. There would be no atom.

BRUMFIEL: Sally Dawson is a theoretical physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The Higgs boson was the key to explaining how atoms held together. It all looked good on paper, but nobody had ever seen a Higgs boson. So physicists got to work building a giant, multibillion dollar machine to discover it. It was called the Large Hadron Collider.

DAWSON: It's a huge machine, costs a lot of money. It took a long time to build.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, it was decades of work. Peter Higgs seemed content to wait. He stayed in Edinburgh and raised a family. He was a regular at the city's concert halls and museums. And he taught students, including Victoria Martin.

VICTORIA MARTIN: I was studying for a degree in mathematical physics.

BRUMFIEL: Mathematical physics is every bit as hard as it sounds, but Higgs was a great lecturer. And it was during one of his talks that she realized she could understand this stuff.

MARTIN: And I just think in that moment, that was one of the things that made me think, I actually want to do this for a career.

BRUMFIEL: Martin became a physicist, worked on the giant collider, and was eventually part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. And when Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize the following year, he invited Martin and other students he had mentored to come with him. It was those personal connections that Higgs cared about more than the spotlight, Martin says.

MARTIN: You could really see how much he really appreciated the company of his family, but also of a lot of people that he'd mentored over the years.

BRUMFIEL: Peter Higgs died Monday. He was 94. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRIK JANSON'S "LUNA IS DANCING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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