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“Person of the Year” Nomination for Higgs Boson Riddled with Errors

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Time magazine recently posted 30 nominations for its ever-popular “Person of the Year” award. Tucked in between President Barack Obama and the Korean rapper Psy is an unlikely candidate for the “Person of the Year”—a subatomic particle. As Scientific American readers are well aware, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider announced this summer that they had found something that looks much like long-elusive Higgs boson, causing a brief but wondrous worldwide bout of Higgsteria.

Under ordinary circumstances, we would be all for the elevation of the Higgs to “Person of the Year” status, if only to further honor the heroic efforts of thousands of scientists and engineers who made the discovery possible (more on that below). But Time’s nomination threatens to do more harm than good. Every single sentence in Time’s nomination contains at least one serious error. The magazine scores a perfect five for five. In the interest of clarity, let’s do a quick edit:

Sentence 1: Take a moment to thank this little particle for all the work it does, because without it, you’d be just inchoate energy without so much as a bit of mass.

Error: The common understanding of the Higgs is that it is responsible for all mass in the universe, but this is untrue, as my colleague Daisy Yuhas explained last week in an illuminating (and factually accurate!) post: “The Higgs field does not explain the origin of all mass. ‘Many uninformed physicists have been saying that for years,’ says theoretical physicist Chris Quigg of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. ‘We have actually understood the source of most of the mass in the proton [for example] for some time,’ Most mass—including your own—comes from the strong force, a force of nature that keeps the nucleus of atoms bound together.” The Higgs field does give rise to the masses of particles such as the W and Z bosons, as well as the electron. And it’s true that without it, the universe would be a very different place. “Without that mass, electrons wouldn’t hook up with nuclei to form atoms. ‘That would mean no valence bonding, so much of chemistry, essentially all, would vanish,’ Quigg says. ‘Therefore no solid structures and no template for life.’”

Sentence 2: What’s more, the same would be true for the entire universe.

Error: See Sentence 1. Protons and neutrons would still have mass.

Sentence 3: It was in the 1960s that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs first posited the existence of a particle that causes energy to make the jump to matter.

Error: The Higgs field does not “cause energy to make the jump to matter,” and it’s unclear why the author of this piece would think that true. But let’s be generous with our interpretation. The Higgs does explain why the W and Z bosons—the carriers of the weak force—have mass. Were they to be massless, they would necessarily travel at the speed of light, and thus could be considered “energy” rather than “matter” (as though there were a hard and fast dividing line between the two). They would be something like the photon—the carrier of the electromagnetic force. But is the photon pure “energy”? Not at all. The photon is the poster child for behaving as both wave (energy) and particle (matter) at the same time.

And Peter Higgs was neither the first nor the only physicist to posit the existence of the particle that bears his name.

And he’s English (born in Newcastle), not Scottish.

Sentence 4: But it was not until last summer that a team of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider — Rolf Heuer, Joseph Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti — at last sealed the deal and in so doing finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Error: Where to begin? Let’s start with Einstein. I honestly have no idea why the author would make any connection between the Higgs and general relativity. None! Because there is none. Einstein did teach us that energy and mass are two sides of the same coin (and that insight is a consequence of his special, not general, theory of relativity), but this teaching works at cross purposes to the author’s repeated assertions that the Higgs somehow transforms energy into matter.

Not to mention that no scientific theory could ever be “finally fully” confirmed. What would it mean for a scientific theory to be “finally fully” confirmed? Is he suggesting that no evidence could ever arise that could challenge it? Purely mathematical theorems can be proven. Scientific theories can only be disproven.

And then there’s the attribution problem. The author cites “a team” of three researchers that discovered the Higgs. He’s only off by three or four orders of magnitude. Two experiments at the LHC—ATLAS and CMS—independently confirmed the discovery this summer. Each of these experiments is made of about 3,000 working physicists. At the time of the announcement, Incandela and Gianotti were leading each of the experiments, but leaders change all the time (Incandela has led CMS for less than a year, for example), and the Higgs discovery has been a multi-decade long project.

Sentence 5: The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles, but the scientists would surely be happy to collect any honors or awards in its stead.

Error: “More-fundamental” particles? Certain particles such as the proton or the neutron are “composite” particles—they’re composed of other particles (in this case, quarks and gluons). But the “fundamental” particles in the Standard Model of particle physics are not composites. They are, so far as we can tell, indivisible. Certainly they can change from one to another, but they don’t break apart into “more fundamental” particles. The Higgs is itself a fundamental particle. In fact, this is a big part of the reason for all the excitement—it was the last fundamental particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that had eluded detection. It decays, but when it does it changes into other equally fundamental particles.

Time, I’m all for awarding the Higgs boson as the 2012 Person of the Year. But if you do, please let someone who understands something about particle physics read the laudatory article before it goes to print. I can think of 6,000-odd people who would be good for the job.

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kongrooo 5:54 pm 11/29/2012

    Yep, OK that makes a lot of sense dude.

    Link to this
  2. 2. zsingerb 11:07 pm 11/29/2012

    Except, it AIN’T a person. Let Time either change to “interesting development of the Year” or actually name a person that had the most influence in the world in the year, huh?

    Link to this
  3. 3. blackbird79 12:17 am 11/30/2012

    Could Mr. Moyer please take off the muzzle and “out” the, scientifically speaking, functional illiterate and his managing editor who perpetrated this mess? Worse than a mere buffoon, this is the kind of cultural anarchist sharing responsibility for the broad success of the dystopia-embracing war on expertise now being waged in what are, effectively, media monopolies ruled by the irresponsible dictates of pointedly for-profit capitalists. And promoted with unyielding, well-funded determination and zeal by the predatory interests and parasites directing numerous powerful American corporations; by right wing politicians; and by vocal, consistently mendacious religionists hostile toward science. This morally dis-functional collaboration is now a thoroughly institutionalized and defining part the Republican party, to the present and future peril of humanity.

    Trash pseudo-science is no joke. Time magazine’s so-called & so-labled “science” pages abandoned the promotion of real knowledge and journalistic integrity as central tenets and guiding principles some time ago. These pages now exist as mere mass market “info-tainment”… as do “news” channels such as CNN; for the purpose of generating maximized profits, or so their executive geniuses think. So shill “journalists” prevail. As do shill editors.

    Those who care about scientific rationalism regaining its measure of lost stature in matters of social leadership and matters of law must stand up and be heard.

    Link to this
  4. 4. javaron 5:15 am 11/30/2012

    <<>what exactly would be challenged, with no aspect of the scientific method in supportive view of a theory claiming to hold the solid universe in human sight, this guy and his ‘ites’ , since they decided to tag along, are claiming without even lay explanations, that they are, indeed, responsible for the physical universe at large…what a crok of total b shit

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  5. 5. javaron 5:16 am 11/30/2012

    i believe that ‘grand delusion’ is necessarily called for as a sidecar for this monumental refostering of the void

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  6. 6. ottokrog 1:16 pm 11/30/2012

    I don’t think the qualities required for The Higgs particle to explain the standard model is there, and I don’t think they will be found.

    Neither do I think, that supersymmetry will be recognized in futuristic science.

    I know I am a pain in the butt, but I believe in a complete different approach to high energy physics in the future. My vision is that future science will engulf consciousness. The mind and the spirit will be explainable through physics.

    I have been a fan of Sir Roger Penrose for many years. He was the first scientist to say that consciousness should be found in the quantum field rather than in the brain. I am so much a fan, that I made my own theory out of the idea that consciousness might be explained through a better understanding of antimatter and multiverse dimensions.

    My idea is that antimatter is the mirror of this universe, and that antimatter might be where memory is located.

    I think that the subconscious mind and consciousness are located in multiverse dimensions in the form of antimatter.

    The original standard model predicted no mass at all. That made no sence to scientists, so Peter Higgs predicted The Higgs Boson, purely from mathematics. I think the original standard model was right, particles does not exist. The physical universe is a flow of energy from minus infinite energy to plus infinite energy.

    If you would like to know more, then you can watch a full videopresentation of my theory on my blog:

    Link to this
  7. 7. Lewis W. Cobb, III RPh, PD 5:00 pm 11/30/2012

    I am asking a basic question. Who is going to pick and

    choose the afore mentioned 6000 ODD people that were used

    in the so-called discussion of the Higgs (object)?

    LWC, III

    Link to this
  8. 8. davarinovantucson 10:38 am 12/1/2012

    “Time” has historically been unable to wrap its corporate head about anything that it has praised.

    Not that “Time” praises the unworthy of praise, but the general standards of journalistic ability do not include knowledge of what one is speaking about.

    This is not a new problem with “Time”, or for that matter most “mass” journalism. James Thurber wrote witheringly of the accuracy of a “Time” cover story about him in 1951. His letter spoke of the fact that he was interviewed by a person who had never read his work and who was possibly interviewing him as her first real-life journalism assignment.

    So it’s not a new problem. Never has been: journalism has always had an element of Osterizing of the complex so that the masses may be able to discuss heady things over dinner and nachos.

    Link to this
  9. 9. RussOtter 12:55 pm 12/1/2012

    Motion Equals Mass Perpetually

    The notion that the Higgs-Boson is essential, is essentially askew… Please read more for logical, but heretical tales…

    Perpetual (Continuous) Motion (A)
    Combined with The notion of Perpetual Motion which manifests Mass (B)
    (Two distinct subjects related to physics that require greater review)

    These are two actually unrelated subjects, but they both possess a “Perpetual” quotient, as you define them. They also are on the fringes of physics, as they do not receive the due respect they actually merit, as they open the possibilities to changing life as we know it for the better. Why, you might ask: Well, they build on knowledge which is always a good thing, but more important, the import of Continuous Motion, can change the world, and bring us closer as a community of common based peoples. Such knowledge and its power, take diversity and unify it, lessening warring behaviors and improving communication.

    If you read my “Smart Energy Now” in Section 3 of my BLOG “Our Universe, Science and Potentials in Review: ( , you will have a better understanding of what I am trying to explain here. As this is just a starting point to hopefully generate the minds interest in matters that can pay in humanities most valued dividends. Perpetually…

    Perpetual (Continuous) Motion

    Perpetual (Continuous) motion is a product, not of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but the mechanics of simple motion, multiplied by both linear and non-linear directions, propelled by natural forces: i.e., gravity, electrostatics, and magnetism or a varied combination of those three natural forces.

    When these principles of motion and natural energies work together they establish continuous motion. I use the term continuous rather than perpetual, because materials (matter) wears out, and needs replacement at some point. NOTE: Entropy or Atrophy,take your pick, does at some level within the finite, take place at some point. But for all intents and purpose you could sensibly call this perpetual motion.

    All it requires is an understanding of motion in all its forms, and natures’ self-propelled energies, as I mentioned earlier. Hence thermodynamics is not an applicable theology or science with these conditions. Reason being, you are not putting into something less than you are receiving. You are merely leveraging a form of gear ratio, via nature’s natural elements/energies and dimensions, whereby you gain more than you use, because we are not involved with the loss for gain, such as in burning a fuel for energy. This process is therefore exempt from Thermodynamic, just as Infinity will always be. Thermodynamics is not sacrosanct, when different methods are applied to generate energy, versus using fossil fuels.

    Motion equals Mass

    Motion is Mass. So it goes that all things are in motion; so the idea of a massless particle is flawed exponentially so.

    Yet we keep asserting such particles, such as photons and gravitons, are massless? Show me a photon without motion and I will show you a world without form or electromagnetism, as we know it. It does not exist. Simply a Photon has mass by way of its motion and reflective of its impacts by way of gravity. And I would note we constently ignore the fact that the graviton has not been found, but we suggest that the Higgs-Boson will complete the Standard Model?

    Now, I will surmise that dark matter and possibly dark energy, may be of a motionless nature, which defies identification or form in a traditional sense. Such a motionless mathematical formula tied to our motion based world, may be the balance and genesis that makes sense, and will lead to new vistas of knowledge, along with a new vista of questions.

    Time will tell.

    Still, my presumption for dark matter and dark energy. Is just that. A random leap into the possibilities, without a scrap of knowledge, only presumptions for the speculative mind to ponder. More central to my theme is that Motion produces Mass, and we are captives to that mass based world… In all we do or know today.

    Show me a massless particle and I will show you a measurement system that is lacking.

    Further on this subject: Is that enigmatic world of a black hole, that exudes to me, the impression of density so great as to imply no motion or the restriction thereof. However it takes the opposite to achieve a black hole, which has a motion quotient that is faster than the speed of light, to reflect its own existence. Hence once again, Motion equals Mass on a weighted particle scale relative to its motion.

    So the question arises: At an ultimate Density, if that were possible, does motion cease. And if it ceases, what transpires at that moment? A Big-Bang, a new dimension, or even dark matter or dark energy?

    These are the quests I find of intriguing interest.

    Link to this
  10. 10. johnog 1:35 pm 12/1/2012

    Chris Quigg is not only, a classmate “alma mater” ’66 but we shared at least one class with a certain Dr. Bromley. I also succeeded in graduating with a B.S. in Physics, but I, possibly because of Chris, went on to (relatively successfully) to use computers to instruct traffic signal controllers to do what very competent traffic engineers correctly figured was the best way to control those signals in, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Richmond (aka Staten Island). My point? Anything Chris says is good enough for me

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  11. 11. dadster 8:08 am 12/2/2012

    An energy conglomeration at 5 sigma distance might statistically indicate the presence of some hypothetical entity , but it’s still not a certainty. So it’s prudent to wait before getting too much excited about Higgs particle. There is so much more to go . In quantum science , observations could create observables . It is well known that if one looks continuously, consistently and constantly over long periods for something it can get created and materialize in quantum science as an observable ! And , we have been looking for this entity for the past ten years ! Draw your own conclusions .
    I agree to the view that material physics has no scope to factor in consciousness because consciousness is not material . Consciousness is a totally different manifestation of cosmic energy than electromagnetic energy which is the nazis of all matter .consciousness is the energy of ” life ” . Life- energy is all pervading in space and evident in microbes that can survive in all types of extreme temperature pressure conditions . Life energy intertwined with matter- energy ( i.e. Electromagnetic energy ) manifests as bio- life. The material structure is provided by matter and the infused stuff is life- energy . Chemical structures which are true copies of bio- structures do not get infused with life . Physicists have not so far been able to create a single leaf , microbe or living cell from raw and basic inorganic chemicals whereas Nature so prolifically and easily keep creating bio- life of which human beings are just an insignificant part.
    Bio- science combined with quantum science should strike out new directions of research and invent new paradigms to unravel Life- energy . Quantum science is no more material physics although material physicists found it at the very limits of material physics where principles of causation , conservation of energy and entropy broke down . Life- energy is organizing energy principle , not subject to entropy which is disorganiziing principle .one-to- one functional
    relation do not exist in quantum field as observed from advance- waves and quantum entanglements which communicates signals at speeds greater than light . Conservation of energy is invalidated by ” vacuum- energy ” which can create and destroy energy spontaneously at random without having to have a cause or reason.sometimes the energy created is of such magnitude that out of that universes like that of ours could be formed.
    Free- will , a charcteristic of life energy, is unreasonable , unpredictable and un-measurable is characteristic of a quantum science – object ,not subjected to rules of material science ,not quantifiable . It’s a quality not a quantity amenable to mathematical modeling.

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  12. 12. dadster 8:51 am 12/2/2012

    Life has no mass . It’s a manifestation of cosmic energy . Life is not an emergent phenomena . Life is more fundamental than quarks or any particle or entities bordering on discreteness and continuities like particles and waves , like light or electromagnetic energy. Life- energy is characteristically continuous and not digital or discrete .Like light which can be only ‘visible’ to our senses or electromagnetic equipments when interacting with mass similarly life- energy can manifest to our senses when interacting with structured mass , or bio- mass or bio- cells . But that does not make it the same as structured discontinuous particle or as emergent from it or a derivative of structured mass .at some stage under certain temperature and pressure conditions life- energy ( different from electromagnetic energy ) ” quickens” lumpen mass ( not radiating energy ) with the organizing qualities of life, which then is imbued with the qualities of self- organization , reproduction and self- propagation. Electrical energy without combining with magnetic energy cannot manifest in their pure forms. Similarly life- energy can manifest to our physical senses only if intertwined with matter. , with bio- structures like single- felled bacteria or virus or multicellular organism. Since life- energy is mass- less cosmic energy,it cannot be quantized it cannot be quantified ,so it does not lend itself to mathematical modeling . Hence had to be studied through experimentation through yet- to- be- invented processes. Life is a continuous process and not a finished static product , ever changing , ever flowing impregnated with uncertainties and probabilities beyond the ambit of colliders and accelerators or even of matter – churning , matter- spewing , energy-radiating quasars or energy crunching and crushing black holes. Life itself is motion- less but can impart motion to matter , or standing the argument on it’s head we can say that life is ever- vibrant imparting vibrancy to motionless lumpen matter .

    Bio- science should break out from physics to seek out other paradigms than paradigms of material physics to describe the attributes of life- energy.

    Link to this
  13. 13. David Marjanović 10:08 am 12/3/2012

    ottokrog, Penrose’s idea of quantum superposition inside microtubuli doesn’t work: they’re way too big (there’s water in them!) and way too warm. Penrose is talking about biology in general and neuroscience in particular without understanding it at any level of detail, not even the chemistry level.

    I’m a biologist, and I have yet to see evidence that life isn’t an emergent matter of degree.

    My idea is that antimatter is the mirror of this universe, and that antimatter might be where memory is located.

    …We fortunately don’t carry antimatter around inside us. What are you talking about?

    Damage specific parts of the brain, and you damage the memory. “A blow to a man’s head confuses his thinking; a blow to the foot has no such effect; this cannot be due to an immortal soul” – Heraclitus, around 500 BCE, but few people seem to have listened.

    Bio- science should break out from physics to seek out other paradigms than paradigms of material physics to describe the attributes of life- energy.

    Life isn’t energy. It’s an activity. Life is what sufficiently complex chemical systems do. And consciousness is what the brain does.

    Link to this
  14. 14. hugmar 7:49 pm 12/3/2012

    Wow blackbird79; tell us how you really feel

    Link to this

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