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.