A decades old physics laboratory in the central U.S. state of Illinois has found itself in the race to help scientists unlock the secrets of the universe. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory was conceived more than 40 years ago to explore the outer reaches of physics. A much newer atom smasher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, was built to make the ultimate discovery, what some call the "God Particle."
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois know it as the "Higgs boson."
Nobel Physics laureate Leon Lederman calls it the "God Particle."
But what no one knows yet is whether or not it is real.
The Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that could explain why matter has mass, is still a theory.
"It's by no means an absolute that the Higgs particle exists," explains Robert Roser, a scientist at Fermilab's Tevatron Particle Accelerator, working to find the Higgs boson.
'We collide protons and antiprotons together at very high speeds, and try to understand what happened as a result of that collision, with the underlying goal of trying to understand how the universe was created, and how it works," he said.
Scientists hope to find the Higgs boson in the remnants of these high speed, subatomic collisions.
Wade Fisher works at another facility at Fermilab called DZero. "What we're doing here is essentially either confirming or ruling out theories we believe strongly need to be in place to explain why we are here, why matter interacts the way it does, and how everything came to be the way we see it now," Fisher said.
For decades, scientists from around the world came to Fermilab and made discoveries in subatomic physics that led to the Higgs Boson theory. But the end of an era, and perhaps the lack of a discovery, loomed on the horizon when the Tevatron was scheduled to shut down in 2011.
Most of the work to find the Higgs was expected to shift to the more modern Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, at the CERN facility in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.S. has contributed more than $500 million to that project. But the LHC, which went online last September, is currently shut down as a result of an accident.
Now, with more time and with the only functioning atom smasher in the world, Fermilab is in a race to claim the discovery of the Higgs boson as its own.
"The time that we have now where the LHC is ramping up to start colliding is really crucial for us to be able to make as much headway, but at that point the race is on for real and the guess as to who will get there first is as good as anyone's," Fisher stated.
Scientists here express hope the new U.S. administration will give the Tevatron money and support they say has been missing in recent years.
Fermilab expects to benefit from President Obama's economic stimulus, though nobody knows by how much.
Scientists like Roser hope it will be enough to get Fermilab across the finish line first, in the race to prove the 'God Particle" exists in an earthly dimension. "We would like to be first," Roser said. "But by no means does that end the story, it's just we would have one more feather in our cap before we turn this place off and turn it over to Europe to take over the energy frontier."