The atom smasher at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory west of Chicago may still show the way to an elusive particle—the Higgs boson or "God particle"—that could help explain the makeup of all matter in the universe.
The Fermilab is now in a race to find the Higgs with the new kid on the block—the far more powerful “Big Bang” collider in Switzerland. That collider, known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has the edge on energies that can give scientists a time machine back to the first milliseconds after the Big Bang. The high-impact subatomic particle collisions mimic conditions that might have existed then. But the Higgs could be found at either lab.
According to physicists, the theoretical Higgs boson neatly ties together the Standard Model of matter that accounts for the particles and subsequent interactions that create mass. A coffee cup, for example, is made up of many atoms arranged in a certain way. Yet scientists so far have been unable to explain why those atoms stay together at the most fundamental level.
“We believe the Higgs boson acts as a force, and when other particles feel this force they get heavier, like a person trying to run through a knee-deep substance,” said Leon Lederman, director emeritus of Fermilab and Nobel laureate in physics. Lederman wrote a book about the Higgs called, "The God Particle - If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question?"
The Higgs is believed to give mass to matter. But for nearly 50 years, no one has proven Higgs even exists.
During a phone interview from his office at Fermilab in Batavia, Lederman expressed confidence that scientists would discover evidence for the Higgs in the next two or three years.
“If there’s been no progress by 2013, there will certainly be some discouragement and many physicists will then begin to seek other explanations,” Lederman said.
The search is tedious. Fermilab, for example, will record roughly 2 billion collisions this year alone. Collisions occur when beams of protons accelerated to near the speed of light are hurled into each other, allowing scientists to search for particles in the subatomic debris.
At times, the debate has been heated about which collider will achieve the Higgs discovery first.
The LHC has far more sensitive detectors and operates at seven times greater strengths than Fermilab. On the other hand, the older Illinois collider may be better positioned to find the particle if it is of lower mass than expected. As proof, Fermilab recently published major findings that excluded a range of collision strengths in which the Higgs was previously thought to appear. Such progress on the Higgs hunt had not been made in a decade
The LHC was completed in 2008 and is only just grumbling to life, reaching record accelerator energy levels on March 30. Eventually, at maximum operation, the LHC can achieve seven times the energy levels of Fermilab's Tevatron.
“It’s is like building an Indy racecar. You’re not going to take it out on the track at full speed on the first run,” said Don Lincoln, an experimental physicist at Fermilab. “It will require some tuning between now and 2013 and I’m doubtful that they’ll find [the Higgs] before then.”
Fermilab scientists such as Lincoln are participating in research at the LHC, the accelerator run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Lincoln believes that either the U.S. or European collider will discover something that acts like the Higgs in the next few years. If not, he won’t be discouraged.
“I can’t imagine both colliders not finding anything,” Lincoln said. “And finding something other than the Higgs would be just as exciting…a whole new framework to explore.”