Atom smasher closes in on elusive particle

GRENOBLE, France — Scientists hoping to puzzle out how the Universe began will find a long-sought theoretical particle — or rule out that it exists — by the end of 2012, the director of the world’s largest atom smasher predicted Monday.

Rolf Heuer, director of the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, said his confidence was based on the latest findings from the $10 billion proton collider under the Swiss-French border.

“I would say we can settle the question, the Shakespearean question — ‘to be or not to be’ — end of next year,” he told reporters at a major physics conference in Grenoble.

The Higgs boson isn’t just any particle. It’s the linchpin of the Standard Model of particle physics theory that explains the Big Bang, because it is believed to answer a fundamental question about why matter has mass. The particle itself is thought to give mass to other particles, and thus to objects and creatures in the Universe.

Heuer said these are “exciting times” for particle physicists because of the latest findings among two separate teams of scientists operating the Atlas and CMS detectors at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, that he directs.

Scientists are starting to pinpoint the precise level of high energy where the Higgs boson is expected to be found.

Last year, the collider for the first time threw together two proton beams, tiny particles traveling in opposite directions though a 17-mile (27-kilometer tunnel) at incredible speeds in conditions simulating those 1 trillionth to 2 trillionths of a second after the Big Bang. The crash on a subatomic scale is aimed more at improving our knowledge of how the universe was created than at finding immediate new technology uses to improve our lives.

The power produced has been ramped up to ever-new record levels this spring, creating reams of new data that requires endless monitoring and sifting. But to simulate the moments after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, the energy levels produced are potent only on the small atomic level.

The collider launched with great fanfare little more than three years ago. Nine days after its inauguration, the project was sidetracked when a badly soldered electrical splice overheated, causing extensive damage to the massive magnets and other parts of the collider some 300 feet (100 meters) below the ground.

It cost $40 million to repair and improve the machine. Since its restart in November 2009, the collider has performed almost flawlessly and given scientists valuable data. It quickly eclipsed the next largest accelerator — the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago.

“They have tested the Standard Model very well,” Heuer said of CERN scientists. “They are now ready to bring us into uncharted territory. We are still missing the most wanted particle, the Higgs boson.”

Fabio Zwirner, a physicist at the University of Padua, Italy, said there is “considerable excitement because of the many new results” at the conference, but physicists were still unsure whether they were seeing “hints” at finding the particle, or were running into statistical errors.

Physicists also hope the collider will help them see and understand other suspected phenomena, such as dark matter, antimatter and supersymmetry. Dark matter has been theorized by scientists to account for missing mass and bent light in faraway galaxies. Scientists believe it makes galaxies spin faster.

Physicists once thought protons and neutrons were the smallest components of the atom’s nucleus, but colliders showed they are made of quarks and gluons and that there are other forces and particles.