Physicists Hunt the Elusive Higgs Boson

Scientists who think they have come tantalizingly close to discovering a long-sought subatomic particle have decided to press ahead for another month rather than immediately leave the field — and a probable Nobel prize — to their main American rival.

When CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, halts experiments on the Large Electron-Positron collider, it will have to sit and watch for five years as the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., has free rein to discover the so-called Higgs boson.

“It would be one of the greatest landmark achievements of physics,” said Chris Tully, a Princeton University professor who has been working on the search for the Higgs boson at CERN.

A ‘Specialized Craziness’

Scientists at CERN have recorded three subatomic collisions where they think they have seen “shadows” of the particle, theorized to be responsible for all mass — or weight — in the universe.

CERN decided Thursday to keep the Large Electron-Positron running through October, postponing for one month contracts to start the changeover to the Large Hadron Collider, which will take five years to bring online.

But it decided against a longer run, even though one extra month is unlikely to be enough to find the particle.

Being able to claim the “discovery” of the Higgs will be a feather in the cap of the successful laboratory.

“Mass is a very important property of matter, and we have nothing in our current theory that says even a word about it,” said Claude Detraz, one of two research directors at CERN.

“I’m sure history will consider it a major step in the understanding of matter,” even if “it sounds like a little specialized craziness — ‘Higgs boson, Higgs boson, Higgs boson.’”

A Fundamental Question

Tully said the mass of subatomic particles can make objects hard to break or fragile, determine whether they are a conducting metal or an insulator, even create their color.

“For us it’s one of the most fundamental questions we can ask, and that’s why we’ve spent our lives looking for this,” Tully said.

CERN has long planned to start Oct. 2 with construction to replace the LEP, the world’s largest nuclear accelerator, with the more powerful LHC, much desired by the scientific community.

The dilemma resulted from the Higgs-like signals detected as the CERN physicists — who come from all over the world — were pushing the LEP to its outside limits in its final months.

“We do have some strong evidence for this signature,” Tully told The Associated Press. But, he conceded, CERN is far from having enough occurrences to be able to claim “discovery” even if it makes more during October.

But, said Tully, in the give-and-take world of physics, that would “give” Fermilab even more of a boost in its own search, helping it to pinpoint where to look.

Judy Jackson, spokeswoman for Fermilab, said it was “a little premature” to speculate that the accelerator outside Chicago would benefit.

But, she conceded, Fermilab scientists were “watching with interest” to see what CERN decides.

Not only is Fermilab a rival for the Higgs discovery, it — like the U.S. government — also has a stake in seeing the Large Hadron Collider start up on time.

“The U.S. and in particular Fermilab are contributing major elements to the LHC construction,” Jackson said.

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