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U.S. team escalates the hunt for elusive subatomic particle

U.S. scientists say they could get enough data by the end of September to establish whether the elusive Higgs boson exists or not.
An aerial photo of Fermilab shows the futuristic Wilson Hall alongside the cooling canal for the Tevatron, with a prairie habitat inside the collider ring.
An aerial photo of Fermilab shows the futuristic Wilson Hall alongside the cooling canal for the Tevatron, with a prairie habitat inside the collider ring. Fermilab
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

U.S. scientists said on Wednesday that they could get enough data by the end of September to establish whether the Higgs boson, long believed to have played a vital role in the creation of the universe, exists or not.

Physicist Eric James from Fermilab near Chicago told a conference in the French city of Grenoble that his team — working in parallel with scientists at the CERN research lab near Geneva — were fast narrowing down the mass range where the particle could be hiding.

The Higgs boson is the last missing piece of the so-called Standard Model of physics. It's thought to be the particle that gave mass to the debris of the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, but it hasn't yet been detected.

Teams at CERN's Large Hadron Collider and Fermilab's Tevatron have been looking for the boson's trail in the products of trillions of high-energy particle collisions.

CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer told the Grenoble meeting of top international physicists on Monday that the Higgs had so far evaded researchers at the Large Hadron Collider. He said the LHC could "settle the question" of the Higgs' existence by the end of 2012.

The U.S. research center put up a much tighter timetable.

Fermilab Today, the laboratory's daily bulletin, said James reported in Grenoble that researchers at the Tevatron, the LHC's friendly rival, were stepping up their experiments in the search for the Higgs.

They were now "extremely close to the sensitivity needed ... either to see a substantial excess of Higgs-like events or to rule out the existence of the particle," the bulletin declared in a summary of James' report.

Earlier studies at the Tevatron, in operation since 1983, and at the much bigger LHC, operating since March 2010, have left a narrow window as the best place to look for the Higgs, posited by British scientist Peter Higgs and others four decades ago.

The experiments in Tevatron, Fermilab said, "are on track to collect enough data by the end of September 2011 to close this window if the Higgs particle does not exist." The Tevatron is due to shut down at the end of September, and a U.S. replacement is not in view. Rather, the LHC will monopolize the spotlight for particle physics research.

Although the required data could be taken in by the end of September, it would take months more to analyze the data.

Last weekend, scientists visiting Grenoble for the Europhysics Conference on High-Energy Physics said they were encouraged by reports from CERN and Fermilab showing that the Higgs might be emerging from hiding.

Physicists said unusual fluctuations in the data from the explosions suggested that they were getting close to the Higgs in the mass range of 120 billion to 150 billion electron volts, or 120 to 150 GeV. But others cautioned that these could be misreadings or random anomalies.

“With the additional data and further improvements in our analysis tools, we expect to be sensitive to the Higgs particle for the entire mass range that has not yet been excluded," Dmitri Denisov, co-spokesperson for the Tevatron's DZero experiment, said in the Fermilab report. "We should be able to exclude the Higgs particle or see first hints of its existence in early 2012.”

Higgs, who is tipped to get a Nobel prize if his theory is proven correct and the particle is identified, has always left open the possibility that he might be wrong. "If it doesn't exist, there must be something else like it," he once said.

This report includes information from Reuters and msnbc.com.