February 23, 2009

Competition Continues For Hypothetical Particle

The race is underway to find evidence of a hypothetical particle called the Higgs boson, known as the "God Particle" because it is thought to give mass to the matter that makes up the universe.

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory's Tevatron accelerator is competing against the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and its grabbing the attention of particle physicists.

"This has been the holy grail of high energy physics for the last 30 years," said Joe Lykken, a senior scientist at Fermilab in the Chicago suburb of Batavia.

Recently, it appeared that evidence of the Higgs would be found by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) manning the Large Hadron Collider.

Experts believed there was little chance that Fermilab could pull ahead in the race.

"People laughed at the idea of (Fermilab) finding the Higgs," Lykken said. "Our accelerator was not built to find the Higgs."

The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest atom smasher, far more powerful than the Tevatron.

The LHC kicked off with an impressive show of force in September, when beams of protons were fired at nearly the speed of light.

However, the LHC was shut down a week later because of major damage blamed on a faulty wiring splice.

Now its estimated repairs and additional safety features will keep the LHC from firing up again until the end of September.

Fermilab scientists say their accelerator is running very well. They are raising hopes that its ongoing tests, smashing beams of protons into beams of antiprotons, will eventually result in Higgs particles.

The financial situation is also looking good.

"We were looking at huge budget cuts last year and now we are hoping to get stimulus package money and scrambling to see the best way to use it," Lykken said.

Scientist Dmitri Denisov said Fermilab's "probability of discovering" the Higgs is between 50 and 90 percent.

"The bottom line is we have a very reasonable chance to see hints of the Higgs particle by 2010 or 2011," Denisov said.

The scientific world believes that discovering the Higgs boson would lead to a Nobel Prize in physics.

"It's really what we live for, to have the opportunity to embark on such crazy quests," said Jacobo Konigsberg, a University of Florida physicist working at Fermilab.

Konigsberg and co-workers play down competitive talk, pointing out how much the scientists work with each other and readily share information.

"It's not a race, really," said Harvey Newman, a Caltech physics professor who is heading a group of scientists conducting research at CERN.

He said, for example, Fermilab's accelerator may be only strong enough to show the likelihood of the Higgs, without providing the level of certainty that would classify its findings as a discovery.

Lykken agreed. "The Tevatron will never be taken as the last word and we will need the LHC to nail down whether it really is the Higgs," he said.

Still, if Fermilab wins the race, it will be a major discovery.

"It would be an incredible triumph for the U.S. program to take this underpowered accelerator at Fermilab and make this discovery," Lykken said.


Image Caption: The Tevatron accelerator in Batavia, Illinois,


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