Runner-Up: Fabiola Gianotti, the Discoverer

By Jeffrey Kluger – Dec. 19, 2012

Levon Biss for TIME

The LHC, where Gianotti now works and the Higgs discovery was made, straddles the French-Swiss border and is the foremost collider in the world, with a 16.7-mile (27 km) circumference. The machine and its accomplishments are the result of a quarter-century of effort by a worldwide community of scientists. All that effort and hardware is devoted principally to accelerating protons to near the speed of light, then crashing them together at enormously high energies. In the subatomic debris that results from these collisions, the Higgs and other secrets of the universe might be found.

Here’s why the Higgs in particular is so important: a particle doesn’t necessarily have to have mass; the photon, the basic quantum of light, doesn’t. If no particles had mass, however, the universe, along with everything in it, would be a decidedly different (and decidedly less solid) place. “The Higgs particle has two functions,” says Gianotti. “One is to give mass; the other is to allow the standard model to behave properly up to the highest energies.”

(MOREThe Cathedral of Science: How the Higgs Was Found)

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