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The jig may be up for Higgs boson

Scientists await data that may prove the long-hunted 'God particle' exists.

December 09, 2011|Eryn Brown
  • A particle detector used by the CMS team at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.
A particle detector used by the CMS team at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. (Michael Hoch, CERN )

Scientists are quivering with anticipation -- flying halfway around the world for a close-up view of the action and devouring the latest updates from the blogosphere the way some girls track the doings of Justin Bieber.

Careers hang in the balance. Not to mention a cache of chocolate handed out by the folks who award Nobel Prizes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 10, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Higgs boson search: In some copies of the Dec. 9 Section A, a headline accompanying an article about the search for a mysterious subatomic particle ("Data suggest that the crucial, long-hunted subatomic particle may have been found") implied that results from the search had already been released. As the article noted, preliminary results are not expected until next week. In the final version, the headline reads, "Scientists await data that may prove the long-hunted 'God particle' exists."

All the fuss is over an elusive subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, which is key to understanding mass in the universe. No one has ever presented proof of its existence, but that may be about to change.

"There will be people who will see years of work and things for which they got tenure consigned to the dustbin of history," said MIT theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, who believes that the particle's days of anonymity are numbered.

Hundreds of researchers are sifting through data from CERN's Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, which sends beams of protons hurtling toward one another at nearly the speed of light. They are hoping that some of the collisions produced telltale tracks of the Higgs boson -- and thus provide a key piece of experimental confirmation of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes how subatomic particles interact to form the basic building blocks of the universe.

Teams at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, will make a preliminary announcement about their search next week. Scientists expect to get a general indication of whether the Higgs is what they think it is -- or not.

The Higgs boson lies at the heart of a fundamental question: Why is there mass in the universe?

Physicist Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh and other theorists came up with a possible answer 47 years ago, suggesting that particles gain mass by traveling through a particular type of energy field. It came to be known as the Higgs field; the process by which mass is created, the Higgs mechanism. There also had to be a particle associated with the field: the Higgs boson.

Ferreting out the Higgs -- which has earned the nickname "God particle" -- had been beyond the capabilities of the world's atom smashers.

That was a major reason why CERN built the $5-billion Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile loop buried nearly 600 feet underground.

Scientists think they know what the tracks of the Higgs should look like. Once formed, the Higgs decays almost instantaneously into other subatomic particles that physicists can spot at the collider.

The tricky part is figuring out whether the tracks really are evidence of a Higgs boson -- or just unrelated noise.

"You have to determine that it is the Higgs bomb and not some shrapnel from the background," said Vivek Sharma, a UC San Diego physicist who heads up one of the two search teams at CERN. To tell the difference, he added, requires painstaking analysis of data from trillions of collisions.

Just getting to the point where that work became possible has been a tall order, and some physicists are more than a little impatient.

"It slowly drives you crazy," said UC Davis theoretical physicist John Gunion, who began work on his textbook, "The Higgs Hunter's Guide," in 1983. "You wonder, am I going to be dead before they find this damn thing?"

Leon Lederman, who coined the term "God particle" in a 1993 book of the same name, wrote that he had really wanted to call it the "Goddamn Particle," but his publisher wouldn't let him. He knows a thing or two about finding subatomic particles -- he won the Nobel Prize in 1988 for discovering subatomic particles known as the muon neutrino and the bottom quark.

The LHC began its Higgs-hunting experiments in 2010. It has been unexpectedly productive this year, generating 400 trillion proton-proton collisions, almost six times more than expected.

The more collisions scientists can study, the more confident they can be that their results are statistically sound.

At a scientific meeting this summer in France, researchers from Sharma's team, known by the acronym CMS, and a rival group, known as ATLAS, presented early results. Both groups had seen hints of the particle, fueling speculation that the search was coming to an end.

But a month later, CERN physicists at a meeting in Mumbai, India, reported that the Higgs signals were getting weaker, setting off another flurry of excitement -- this time focused on the possibility that the Higgs did not exist after all.

Now the pendulum has swung back: This week, rumor had it that the Higgs signals had strengthened again.

The allure of the Higgs has spread beyond scientists. When Sharma gave a speech at UC San Diego about the Higgs search in January, more than 400 people -- including elementary school children, engineers from nearby tech companies and retirees -- showed up at the auditorium, which seated only about 200. The dean of physical sciences couldn't find a seat.

But no one is more excited than physicists.

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