As an atheist with no desire to upset believers, Professor Peter Higgs has always hated the idea of a God particle. He has never been keen on the nomenclature of the Higgs boson either – referring to it as "the particle named after me" on the rare occasions he gives an interview.

But although his name will forever be attached to one of modern science's most profound discoveries - and he is a racing certainty for a future Nobel Prize – the 83-year-old University of Edinburgh academic remains little known outside his esoteric discipline.

The idea of the particle field was conceived on one rainy Scottish weekend in 1964 when a camping trip to the Western Highlands was washed out. Inspired by the work of fellow Cotham Grammar school boy Paul Dirac, Professor Higgs had eschewed the prospect of Oxbridge to study theoretical physics at King's College London.

But though considered brilliant by his tutors, the Newcastle-born son of a BBC sound engineer failed to secure a lectureship there and headed north. Yet his reputation for laboratory "accidents" meant some doubted he had a future as a serious researcher at all.