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Fri Nov 30, 2012, 06:56 PM

“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.’”



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