Atom smasher yields further clues in search for ‘God particle’

Posted March 07, 2012, at 8:44 p.m.

LONDON — U.S. scientists have found evidence of the existence of a particle that in theory allows other particles to have mass, a discovery that brings researchers closer to understanding the beginning of the universe.

Two independent experiments showed hints of the Higgs boson particle, the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory said Wednesday in a statement on its website. The clues aren’t strong enough to declare the so-called God particle cornered, the laboratory said.

Finding the Higgs boson, named after British physicist Peter Higgs, could be a gateway to discovering new physics, such as superparticles or dark matter, part of the universe’s building material that went missing at the beginning of time. Dark matter makes up about 23 percent of the universe. Such research could help scientists gain a better understanding of the universe and how galaxies hold together.

“The end game is approaching in the hunt for the Higgs boson,” Jim Siegrist, the energy department’s associate director of science for high energy physics, said in the statement. The findings demonstrate “the continuing importance of independent measurements in the quest to understand the building blocks of nature.”

Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, said in December they have narrowed the range where the so-called God particle may be found. While the experiments provided “tantalizing hints” of the particle, the scientists said it’s still too early to say whether the Higgs boson exists, and that further research was needed.

“It’s great to see that all the signs are beginning to line up,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for Geneva-based CERN. “It’s all very exciting, it’s all very intriguing, but we need to be cautious. We need more data.”

Higgs boson particles, if they exist, have short lifespans and can decay into different combinations of particles, according to the Fermi laboratory, in Batavia, Ill. Discovering the Higgs boson requires scientists to observe a significant excess of the particles it decays into, and those particles must have properties that would allow for the mass of the Higgs boson to be reconstructed, Fermilab said.

To that end, scientists in the United States and Europe are using machines to smash beams of atomic particles and record the resulting collisions. The researchers have been creating conditions as close as possible to the so-called Big Bang that formed the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

The Fermi scientists found excesses in their measurements that may have come from a Higgs boson with a mass of about 115 to 135 gigaelectronvolts of energy. The CERN researchers said in December that the Higgs boson most likely has a mass of 116 to 130 gigaelectronvolts or between 115 and 127 gigaelectronvolts. Independent measurements point to a range of 124 to 126 gigaelectronvolts, th e European researchers said at the time.

If the researchers don’t find the particle by the end of 2012, they will exclude its existence, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of CERN, told reporters in Geneva in October. Failing to find the Higgs boson would lend credibility to alternative theories that explain the mechanism that allows particles to have mass.

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