Who'll be the person (or particle) of 2012?

Time magazine has unveiled its longlist for 'person of the year', with Mo, Malala, Psy and Pussy Riot, as well as Higgs boson, up for the title. Simon Usborne eyes the prize

The dictator, the president, the runner, the particle or the robot? It may well be none of the above –Time magazine's "person" (non-people have triumphed twice) of the year can be fiendishly hard to call and this year's 40-strong long-list offers no indisputable candidate.

The final cover star should be the person or idea that "for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year". And so, this year we have Barack Obama alongside Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, as well the Higgs boson particle, the Mars rover and "undocumented immigrants". Like all lists, long or short, Time's is often controversial. The magazine used to pick baddies (Stalin and Hitler among them) but after a US backlash in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini was named, it has been accused of bottling tricky choices. Osama bin Laden was surely the obvious name in 2001, but New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the more patriotic face.

There has been an inevitable American bias (the US has 49 out of 89 names). This year's list offers only two British contenders: Mo Farah and E L James, the Fifty Shades of Grey author (surely Bradley Wiggins deserved a spot or, if baddies could feature, Jimmy Savile?) Ultimately Time's editors will pick a "winner" in mid-December, but anyone may influence them on the magazine's website by saying "definitely" or "no way" to candidates. At the time of writing, Egypt's power-grabbing new President, Mohamed Morsi, topped both columns, while Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt last month, was one of the most popular choices, with more than 70 per cent of votes for her in the "definitely" column.

Charles Lindbergh, the pioneering pilot, was the first Man of the Year, in 1927. It wasn't until 1999 that "Man" became "Person". Ironically, the only outright female names on the cover featured before then. There were four, including Wallis Simpson (1936) and Queen Elizabeth II (1952).

Non-people were The Computer (1982) and the Endangered Earth (1988), while groups included Baby Boomers (1966), You (internet users, 2006) and, last year, The Protester.

There have been several double winners, including Winston Churchill, the only other outright British person to be honoured, and Bill Clinton. One man has done it three times: Franklin D Roosevelt. Obama trails behind with one nod, in 2008, and thus becomes our tip. But I'm voting for Mo.

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