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4Dec 2012

Time’s Higgs Piece May Hold Record for Most Errors in Fewest Words

Simulated Higgs Tracks. It's complicated to explain but not impossible

At least they didn't call it the God particle. But that's about the only redeeming feature of Time's recent blurb on the Higgs. I don’t know whether Jeffrey Kluger at Time nominated the Higgs Boson as candidate for “person of the year” or someone assigned him the task of explaining why someone else thought it was a worthy, if weird choice. Here’s the result:

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. What'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.

I don’t know if Kluger did any research or just made the whole thing up. His short piece bears little resemblance to anything I’ve heard from physicists. Many were clear last summer in explaining that the Higgs field is not responsible for most mass. And the idea that the Higgs confirmed Einstein's relativity? Where did that come from? And how can a fundamental particule decay into "more fundamental" particles? It’s a shame because in my experience high energy physicists are generous with their time and eager to try to help the public share in their excitement.

Scientific American blogger Michael Moyer apparently had a similar reaction to mine. This post points out errors in every single sentence of Time's blurb. I really enjoyed the post, since it addresses some of the most common misunderstandings about the Higgs, as well as some errors that I’d never seen until Kluger’s piece.

I don’t think Time's blurb had to be written by a physicist. But I think it should have been written by someone who at least made the effort to call a physicist or two. Journalists have written wonderful stories and books about particle physics. Nobel Dreams by Gary Taubes is a classic. But it takes good research to pull it off.


"some" sloppy writing; I guess I'm not so swift.

I've seen so sloppy writing in Time.  Once in an article on neuroscience, the behavior of Phineas Gage, the famous railroad worker impaled through his brain by an iron rod, was first described as "whimsical, but never violent."  Several pages later, he is described as "irascible."  Which was it? A guy I'd come to think of as George Carlin was now portrayed as Elmer Fudd.  The article was written by two reporters, but where was the editor?

Thanks for pouncing on this Faye. Your post exemplifies one of the more important things that ksjtracker does: share among journalists instances when scientists recoil en masse at something they read in popular media. Recoiling among readers is good when it's a investigative piece that has gotten the goods on those same readers. But this is a case of having gotten the checkable facts nearly all wrong.

Thanks Faye. I should also mention that after I posted my piece the physicist Matt Strassler (who works on Higgs-related questions) also wrote a phrase-by-phrase evisceration. He catches a few extra things that I didn't mention. Highlights include "Oh wow.  TIME OUT!!!   This is bad," "this is so wrong it’s hard to say how it’s wrong," and "Oh woe.  Oh calamity.  SO wrong."

I'm still shocked that something so obviously idiotic came out of Time. 

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