Scientists at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland say they are encouraged by new data suggesting their Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful atom-smasher, is one step closer to finding an elusive sub-atomic particle known as the Higgs boson. The so-called “God particle” was the object of a three-decades-long search by particle physicists at Fermilab’s now-idled Tevatron Accelerator in suburban Chicago. They greeted the news from Geneva with guarded optimism.
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is just a few years old, but data streaming in after it smashes subatomic particles together at near-light speed has scientists around the world excited.
University of Florida professor Jacobo Konigsberg has contributed to CERN’s hunt for the “Higgs boson.” If they find it, he says, it would solve one of the most enduring mysteries of physics. “The mystery of mass in the universe is one of the most fundamental questions we have," he said.
Konigsberg is on a quest to answer that fundamental question, halfway around the world from the machine that is likely to find it.
He is pouring through the results of the LHC’s latest findings at the Energy Department’s Fermi National Laboratory in suburban Chicago.
In a control room directly linked to CERN, Konigsberg watches test results and information. He says the recent announcement by his colleagues in Geneva pinpoints a specific location where the Higgs is likely to exist, if it exists at all. “The number of events we expect in the data in this region is higher than if the Higgs [boson] wasn’t there. So people are very excited about the possibility that this could be the beginning of unearthing, if you will, the Higgs [boson]," he said.
But at Fermilab, scientist Robert Roser greets the news with skepticism. “These are both kind of like one in 50, one in 100 probability that the background could fluctuate up to be a signal. So not very compelling at all yet," he said.
Roser visited the CERN laboratories in the days leading up to the announcement of progress in the search for the Higgs. He says there is also caution in Europe about what the latest results mean. “And there was no popping of champagne corks… it was pretty much business as usual going on in there. People were talking about their individual analyses and what’s going on… they weren’t giving each other high fives saying we got this thing settled. So I think in Europe there is an air of caution," he said.
“You cannot yet rule out that this small axis of events is from other processes that are mimicking the Higgs. So unfortunately at the moment the situation is ambiguous," said Konigsberg.
But the development demonstrates the LHC’s power. It has eclipsed Fermilab’s Tevatron Accelerator, which went offline in September. “The LHC was meant to surpass the Tevatron. It was meant to eventually find the Higgs, and the Tevatron established a lot of the techniques that are today used by the LHC," said Konigsberg.
There is still a chance the Tevatron could yield the results scientists are looking for.
Though it’s turned off, Roser and his team are still sifting through data and expect to release their findings in March.
If it exists at all, Roser expects the Tevatron or the LHC to find the Higgs boson soon. “If it's there, we will find it in 2012. If it’s not there, we’ll say that too in 2012," he said.
Roser says if they do find the Higgs boson, scientists could spend the next several decades trying to understand it.