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September 25, 2017

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Shy physicist immortalized by 'God particle' discovery

PARIS--Forty-eight years ago, British scientist Peter Higgs had a eureka moment when he realized there could be a particle that confers mass, one of the greatest puzzles in physics.

"He said: 'Oh (expletive), I know how to do that!'" former colleague Alan Walker told AFP of the breakthrough as recounted to him by Higgs, now 83, who today is hailed for widening our understanding of the Universe.

Higgs published a paper on his theory in 1964, becoming the flag bearer of a scientific premise to which several scientists had contributed over the years, but which, at the outset, found few backers.

Shy and unassuming, he lives quietly in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, but was present in Geneva Wednesday when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) said it had found a subatomic particle "consistent" with the long-sought boson that carries his name.

Higgs received a standing ovation as he arrived at the auditorium for the presentation wearing a gray suit and a white, open-collared shirt.

"It's an incredible thing that this has happened in my lifetime," the bald, ruddy-cheeked physicist said on his arrival, seemingly disconcerted by the media scrum that met him.

The elusive Higgs boson is believed to confer mass to some of the fundamental particles that make up matter.

Remembered for his high intelligence by people who worked with him, Higgs had his first paper on the boson rejected by the journal Physics Letters, edited at the time by the CERN, the same organization which later embarked on a years-long, multibillion-dollar quest to find it.

"He thought, well, they don't understand it," said Walker.

A second, more elaborate version of the paper was published by the journal Physical Review letters in the United States.

"He is a very mild mannered and very gentle man, but he actually does get a little tenacious if you say something wrong that (has to do with) physics," said Walker, a retired physicist who worked as a junior lecturer under Higgs.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Higgs holds a Ph.D. from King's College.

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