Dreadful science journalism: Time Magazine’s nomination of the Higgs boson for “Person of the Year” is five sentences long, each one wrong

Well, Time Magazine has tried to do science an honor by nominating a particle, the Higgs boson, for “Person of the Year” (there are other candidates and the winner will be announced in April). As Michael Moyer writes on the Scientific American “Observations” website, every sentence in the nomination has at least one error.

Here’s Time‘s nomination; I’ll let you spot the errors. After you try, go see Moyer’s piece for the post mortem. I’ve put one sentence in bold, which will be taken apart below:

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. hat’s more, the same would be true for the entire universe. 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. 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. 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.

Well, I’ll let you see one error: here’s Moyer’s dissection of the penultimate sentence in bold.

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.

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42 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Time Magazine: Where science meets truthiness, and science runs home crying.

    • gbjames
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      ;)

  2. logicophilosophicus
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    Your saying so don’t make it so. Google “relativistic field theory Higgs” and chevk out a few of the million or so hits.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Google “relativistic field theory Higgs” and chevk out a few of the million or so hits.

      IANAP but doesn’t “relativistic” refer to special relativity in this context? a distinction that the author does make?

      • Posted December 4, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        Well of course that’s what it refers to. And having a “million or so hits” isn’t the way we measure validity in the real world, is it?

        • AK
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          “Special” is the key word here. The higgs mechanism in the form its been tested adheres to the laws of special relativity. It is independent of the validity of general relativity. Moreover, google correlation does not mean one proves or requires the other. Finding a higgslike boson does not really constitute a particularly strong validation, certainly not the final proof of special relativity any more than any other observation in high energy physics. There are much better tests of SR, for example in cosmic ray observations.

    • Posted December 4, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      @ logicophilosophicus I’m not a physicist nor any kind of scientist so I don’t “get” your comment. Could you point to just one of the hits that makes your point & explain why Moyer is wrong [& by extension JAC]?

      • josh
        Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        I am a physicist and Nikos Apostolakis above has pointed out the main problem. The Higgs is part of the Standard Model which incorporates Special relativity and quantum theory. The Higgs mechanism explains how weak gauge bosons and chiral fermions acquire a rest mass. (Don’t worry too much if chiral fermions and gauge bosons are jargon to you, they’re just particle types.) A rest mass means a particle doesn’t move at the speed of light, equivalently it describes the relation between energy and momentum of a particle. This is all in the context of special relativity.

        General relativity involves the treatment of gravity and the curvature of spacetime. We don’t know how to consistently combine it with quantum theory. Rest masses contribute to the warping of space-time, but so do particles with zero rest mass so there is nothing obviously new for GR from the discovery of the Higgs. GR is confirmed, like Special Relativity before it, by a host of experiments; the Higgs confirms (with caveats) the Standard Model. How to combine GR and the Standard Model is an open question.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          Thank you Josh. You, Torbjörn & Strassler have put the picture together clearly for me.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      You are logically and philosophically wrong, and worse: you are wrong on the physics too. Special relativity # general relativity.

      Instead of discussing the details of that difference, I’ll refer you to insteadparticle physicist Matt Strassler’s article on this.

      “”Oh woe. Oh woe. Oh calamity. SO wrong. Definitely the most disastrous mistake of them all. There’s zero/zilch/nada/no-way/nothing to connect the Higgs story with gravity, which is what Einstein’s general relativity is about. The discovery of the Higgs particle changes nothing in our understanding of general relativity.” [Link removed to pass spam filter without moderation.]

      He adds some more, and links to his detailed article which outlines specifically why gravity and Higgs field are unrelated. Short version: gravity affects all particles, the Higgs field are forbidden to affect all (IIRC) and doesn’t do so.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Oops, the mouse pointer skipped and jumped: “I’ll refer you to insteadparticle physicist” – I’ll instead refer you to particle physicist.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      I’ve been snipped before for making individual answers to multiple responses. So my apologies if you expect something more specific than this:

      The statement I challenged was that there is absolutely no connection between the Higgs particle and General Relativity. I’m no physicist, but I know there is plenty of discussion about the relation between the Higgs Field and gravitational theories – so if the LHC particle is the Higgs Boson, then the Field is real and the discussion is a live issue.

      See, for example, “Scalar Theories of Gravitation” at the dreaded Wikipedia.

      I did not state, nor support the statement, that the Higgs discovery proves General Relativity.

      • josh
        Posted December 5, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        Googling “relativistic field theory Higgs” still wouldn’t be the way to make whatever point you intended to make. The fact remains that the Higgs is not primarily or even commonly discussed for any relation to General Relativity. You are now broadening your terms to ‘gravitational theories’ in general and the Wikipedia article you mention just points out that earlier attempts at relativistic theories of gravity were based on a scalar field and the Higgs theory is also a scalar field. But scalar gravity is not what is meant when essentially any modern physicist talks about general relativity.

        If you want to be the strict usage police, and point out that maybe some connection exists in some sense in highly speculative contexts among a small subgroup of scientists, that’s fine, but let’s not lose the larger point that the article is badly flawed. I don’t think your initial comment was helping to clarify things.

        • Logicophilosophicus
          Posted December 6, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

          You’re right – very bad example (scalar gravitational theories). I was lazily trying to avoid editing and typing chunks of text by sending the reader to the internet… Ah well.

          As I said, I’m not a physicist, so feel free to point out my errors:

          Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity deals exclusively with objects and observers in uniform motion. His General Theory extends this to include accelerating objects and observers, including those in a gravitational field (Principle of Equivalence). It is known to be an incomplete theory because it relies on physics unknown to Einstein to account for the fact of mass. (The Higgs theory also relies on unknown physics, to account for the specific values of masses.) At the cosmological level GR is incomplete, too, since it fails to account adequately for the universal expansion.

          This is from “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene (whose qualications and credentials are easy to check):

          “…where does the resistance to being accelerated come from? Or, in physics-speak, what gives an object its inertia? … Einstein advanced [only a ] partial answer… [He] sought to specify a standard of rest… [rather than] a mechanism whereby an object acquires its mass – its inertia – the attribute that fights accelerations. With the Higgs field, physicists have now suggested an answer… The Higgs ocean in which modern theory claims we are all immersed interacts with quarks and electrons: it resists their accelerations much as a vat of molasses resists the motion of a Ping-Pong ball… And so we do feel the Higgs ocean. The forces we all exert thousands of times a day… are forces that fight against the drag of the Higgs ocean. [Note that] the Higgs field resists only accelerated motion.”

          And (from Greene’s following chapter):

          “The equations of general relativity… allow for an expanding universe. But… Einstein’s equations tell us nothing about how the expansion of the universe got started… Alan Guth… In the late 1970s, together with Henry Tye… was studying various aspects of Higgs fields in grand unified theories… They suspected that… a supercooled Higgs field… contributes a uniform negative pressure… it exerts a repulsive gravitational force that drives space to expand.”

          Michael Moyer is technology editor at Scientific American. Beyond that I know nothing of his credentials, since, unusually, his qualifications are not listed in his bio:
          http://www.scientificamerican.com/mediakit/assets/pdf/editorial_bios.pdf
          As far as I know he is just another journalist.

          The journalism he slates presumably derives from press handouts and interviews, ultimately from Cern physicisicts, e.g. Dr Victoria Martin:

          “In my final undergraduate year in Edinburgh I took two classes with Professor Higgs: General Relativity and Groups & Symmetries. Although these subjects are both key to understanding the Higgs boson, I graduated without ever really understanding what Higgs’ particle was. However something must have caught my imagination as for the past 15 years, since graduating, I’ve been doing research in particle physics. My current research is searching for the Higgs boson as a member of the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider…” (That is accessible on the internet.)

    • Logicophilosophicus
      Posted December 7, 2012 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      Deathly silence. Would Josh or Torbjörn like to comment on the Brian Greene statements? (I think Greene is particularly relevant, since Moyer studied under him at Columbia.)

  3. Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    The sentence you’ve put in bold was the one that got the biggest laugh in the coffee area of the particle physics floor when this came up – equally for the 3-person team & the confirmation of GR!

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    At least, this is only in the nomination. Far away at the top of polling is (get ready for this) Kim Jong Un. Someone has given the North Koreans access to the internet.

    The leading legitimate candidate is Malala Yousafzai. You can go here to vote for any/all including the Boson and Karl Rove (currently at the very bottom).

    • Posted December 4, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Lil Kim was always the only contender in North Korea, of course. For a tie-in with a recent post here (see how everything comes together?), North Korea won the Cat Olympics:

      http://sprocketsinside.blogspot.com/2012/08/north-korea-wins-cat-olympics.html

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      “Someone has given the North Koreans access to the internet.”

      Or possibly just that subset of them who vote for Kim Jong Un…

      “At least you can fucking _die_ and leave North Korea…” – Hitch.

  5. Alext T
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Let’s not forget that despite the jokes and the hype, in any given atom the Higgs Field only accounts for the mass of the electron and the quarks (which accounts for about 1% of the mass of the protons & neutrons). Without this field the atoms wouldn’t form so it certainly is significant, but it’s not true to say that without the Higgs there would not be mass.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      Huh? It seems like you’re saying that protons and neutrons aren’t made of quarks.

      I’m sure you must actually mean something different and more sophisticated, but sometimes it wouldn’t hurt to spell it out a bit.

      • Posted December 5, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        If you add the masses of the 3 individual quarks, the mass comes out at ~1% of that of the proton/neutron. Most of the mass in protons & neutrons comes from the gluon interactions between the quarks that make up protons & neutrons, ie. as a result of the strong force, which is unrelated to the Higgs mechanism in the Standard Model.

  6. brian smith
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    There’s one more factual error in this Tome piece to note. Though as a Scotsman myself, I’m sorry to have to say that Peter Higgs is not. He was born in England and attended the same high school in Bristol that educated Paul Dirac, an even greater theoretical physicist. He’s been on the faculty at Edinburgh University in Scotland for decades but he’s only an honorary Scotsman.

    Of course, all this stuff is the work and precious possession of the entire world, which is why it’s worth getting it right.

    • neil344
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Honest mistake. Sean Carroll, a physicist, makes the same error in his new book on the Higgs.

      • Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        Is a mistake made “honest” when two people make it?

        • neil344
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          No. A mistake is honest when an atheist physicist makes it. :)

    • Occam
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      You mean to say Higgs is No True Scotsman?

    • Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      That is covered in Moyer’s takedown. As Jerry’s title notes, there is an error in every sentence.

  7. ethologist
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Meanwhile, another critique of scientific journalism that does not spare Scientific American from censure: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/occams-corner/2012/dec/01/1

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    For another lament & takedown, from a particle physicist, see Strassler’s article.

    He strongly emphasises that it is the field, not its particles (the ripples in the field) that does the job. (Or fields, in case the Higgs candidate is not the standard Higgs.) He also notes that decays transform elementary particles, often to other as much elementary particles but sometimes to composites.

    But of course it is the lack of attribution & history and especially the reference to gravity that he jumps on:

    “Oh woe. Oh woe. Oh calamity. SO wrong. Definitely the most disastrous mistake of them all. There’s zero/zilch/nada/no-way/nothing to connect the Higgs story with gravity, which is what Einstein’s general relativity is about. The discovery of the Higgs particle changes nothing in our understanding of general relativity. And hey, general relativity is already fairly well confirmed (though one never stops testing a theory for weak points; it took hundreds of years to find a weak point in Newton’s.) Repeat: there is no obvious or direct connection between the Higgs field, or its particle, and gravity! Discovery of the Higgs particle merely represents (partial) confirmation of the idea that the masses of various elementary particles come from a Higgs field (or fields).”

    On Scientific Americans article I would say a good job, but note that waves aren’t energy either. You can as well attribute energy levels to confined classical particle states (and in fact you do that as quantum particles).

    Energy is ultimately a measure of the number of different configurations in phase space that a system can inhabit. That is why 0 (or 0 point in quantum fields) energy corresponds to potential eternal states of systems, they can’t go anywhere else.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    For another lament & takedown, from a particle physicist, see Strassler’s article.

    He strongly emphasizes that it is the field, not its particles (the ripples in the field) that does the job. (Or fields, in case the Higgs candidate is not the standard Higgs.) He also notes that decays transform elementary particles, often to other as much elementary particles but sometimes to composites.

    But of course it is the lack of attribution & history and especially the reference to gravity that he jumps on:

    “Oh woe. Oh woe. Oh calamity. SO wrong. Definitely the most disastrous mistake of them all. There’s zero/zilch/nada/no-way/nothing to connect the Higgs story with gravity, which is what Einstein’s general relativity is about. The discovery of the Higgs particle changes nothing in our understanding of general relativity. And hey, general relativity is already fairly well confirmed (though one never stops testing a theory for weak points; it took hundreds of years to find a weak point in Newton’s.) Repeat: there is no obvious or direct connection between the Higgs field, or its particle, and gravity! Discovery of the Higgs particle merely represents (partial) confirmation of the idea that the masses of various elementary particles come from a Higgs field (or fields).”

    On Scientific Americans article I would say a good job, but note that waves aren’t energy either. You can as well attribute energy levels to confined classical particle states (and in fact you do that as quantum particles).

    Energy is ultimately a measure of the number of different configurations in phase space that a system can inhabit. That is why 0 (or 0 point in quantum fields) energy corresponds to potential eternal states of systems, they can’t go anywhere else.

  10. Galactor
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “The Higgs — as particles do — immediately decayed to more-fundamental particles”

    Immediately? What on earth does that mean?

    More-fundamental? Is the Higgs not “more fundamental” (whatever that means) than the particles into which it decays? Does he mean “more stable”?

    As particles do? I don’t see electrons immediately decaying into more fundamental particles.

    What a load of old tripe.

  11. Posted December 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Why nominate the Higgs boson when there are plenty of deserving inanimate carbon rods in the world?

    • Posted December 4, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      And so many lovely dust bunnies behind my sofa?

      • Posted December 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, there is something very odd about nominating a particle as “person”. Looks like “Anything but Malala”. (There may be an issue with nominating her. If they do, and she is then killed, that will be blamed. [But if they don't, the terrorists have won.])

        • suwise3
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

          If corporations can be people, then Mr. Higgs Boson can be person of the year. Very fitting, actually.

          • Posted December 4, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but think about the implications of making a particle person of the year (assuming you can get past the absurdity, and I can’t, even though I’m very good with absurdity). The picture on the cover is one thing, but how do you take pictures of its childhood home? How do you interview friends and family? It’s a journalistic nightmare? No one but the PuffHo would touch this story!

  12. gravelinspector
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m trying to remember the name of the [physicist?] renowned for describing someone else’s theory as “not even wrong”.
    Depressingly, hoping for “not not even wrong” is about the level that science journalism sits at in most publications this-decade.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 5, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      That name is P.A.M. Dirac, if I’m not even wrong myself.

  13. Dave
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    So now particles are people? According to Romney, corporations are people so why not particles?

  14. AmSci
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    “finally fully confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”

    Holy crap! I was expecting some subtle misunderstanding that only a physicist would notice. That’s so wrong that I actually felt a twinge of embarrassment for the author run up my spine.


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