If Peter Higgs had only started his career as a researcher today, perhaps not much would have come of him. At least that’s what the Brit himself believed. He wasn’t productive enough by today’s standards, he told the newspaper “The Guardian” – after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013 together with the Belgian François Englert. Now the “father” of the Higgs particle has died at the age of 94.

He didn’t even want to be called that. His name was linked to the Higgs particle by chance, he said in the midst of the Nobel Prize hype – after all, it was a group effort. He and Englert came up with the theory independently of each other.

“I’m getting the award for something that took me two or three weeks to do in 1964. That was just a very small part of my life,” Higgs said. His idea back then: Just as gravity gives things their weight, judgments give them their mass. An idea that would make the physicist world famous decades later.

Theory while hiking

Apparently while hiking in the Scottish Highlands, Higgs came up with this theory as a young researcher at the University of Edinburgh, which no one was able to prove for almost half a century. The breakthrough finally came at the CERN nuclear research center in Switzerland. Many thought that the research institution also deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics for this – but organizations are not honored with it.

When researchers announced the discovery of the Higgs particle in Geneva on July 4, 2012, the man who gave it its name was in the audience. It was a great moment in physics. But what made the proof of his particle so spectacular? With his theory, Higgs provided the answer to an important question about the universe: What gives all existing things their shape and size? Or to put it the other way around: Without Higgs particles there is no mass in the universe.

Atheist Higgs against the term “God particle”

A publisher therefore luridly referred to the Higgs boson as the “God particle”. Neither the atheist namesake nor other particle researchers liked that. Nevertheless: The “God particle”, like the theory of relativity, is familiar to many people. It was the last unknown building block in the Standard Model of particle physics and solved the dilemma that many theorists had: the elementary particles in their model had no mass.

The Higgs mechanism works like a kind of syrup that sticks to elementary particles, slows them down and thus gives them mass. The Higgs field, the syrup, appears via the Higgs particle.

Judging by the attention he received from the moment of discovery, Higgs was something of a physics pop star. The scientist sometimes described the spotlight as a plague. The older he got, the fewer interviews he gave. Instead, the father of two wanted to spend more time with his family.

The hustle and bustle was too much for him

The list of scientific prizes and honorary titles that the researcher has received is long. However, he politely declined the appointment of “Sir” in 1999. He later told the BBC that it was too early for that – and anyway he didn’t want such a title.

He was also a critical spirit in other ways: Higgs stayed away from the awarding of the renowned Wolf Prize in Jerusalem in protest against Israel’s Palestinian policy. He supported the anti-nuclear weapons movement – but when it was also directed against the civilian use of nuclear power, that ended.

Higgs was always a modest man. This did not change his pop star status until the end of his life: when he was already over 80 years old, according to a spokesman, the University of Edinburgh was still receiving masses of requests not only for interviews, but also for lectures, which he accepted increasingly rarely.

At 85, Higgs once said, he wanted to finally retire. But he couldn’t actually keep this resolution. The famous physicist still accepted one or two invitations. Because the interest in him remained unbroken until the end.