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The quest for the 'God particle': Tiny matter, big cliffhanger

December 13, 2011 | 12:56 pm

Scientists in Geneva talked about progress in the quest for the God particle

Tuesday's highly anticipated announcement concerning the search for evidence of the Higgs boson -- the so-called God particle — was a cliffhanger of sorts.

"We know that by the end of 2012 — sooner, if we are lucky — we should be able to have the final word," physicist Fabiola Gianotti said Tuesday. Giannotti is a member of one of the two teams scouring data from the Large Hadron Collider for definitive signs of the Higgs.

Scientists at the massive atom smasher outside Geneva have orchestrated trillions of collisions between protons in the hopes of creating a Higgs boson. The particle itself wouldn’t survive for long, but physicists think they know what kind of track of subatomic particles it would leave behind.

"Things are fitting together," said John Gunion, a theoretical physicist at UC Davis, "but we really need a lot more data."

"We still need many more collisions," said Rolf Heuer, the German particle physicist who serves as director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. "But I think we have made extremely good progress."

The Higgs boson is believed to be involved in the origin of mass in the universe. Its existence was first postulated in the 1960s, but until the Large Hadron Collider opened a few years ago, scientists didn’t have a way to look for it.

The LHC has been unusually productive this year, generating nearly six times as many collisions as originally anticipated. There had been some hope that scientists would say they had found the Higgs, but they will have to wait just a little longer, Giannotti said.

"It’s really the last time before the big discovery,” she said Tuesday, “or the big ‘It’s not there.’ "

And what if the God particle were not found?

UCLA physics professor Robert Cousins discussed that possibility with the Los Angeles Times in August after reports that the Higgs didn’t appear to be in some of the places where scientists thought they might find it.

"Occasionally a theorist says that the biggest discovery would be if we don't find it because that would mean that everything we did up to now is wrong," he said.

But he doesn’t share that view: "I think it would be great to find the Higgs boson and understand its properties." However, even if the Higgs boson remains in hiding, all will not be lost, Cousins said.

"Then it would be time to discover new forces and new types of matter,” he said. “There are other discoveries to make at the LHC that would be even bigger discoveries than the Higgs boson because they'd be unexpected.”


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Photo: Fabiola Gianotti talks Tuesday about narrowing the search for the Higgs boson.