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"Person of the Year" Nomination for Higgs Boson Riddled with Errors


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.

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

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