GRENOBLE, France — Scientists 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, and is believed to give mass to other 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 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. Smashing atoms at higher energy increases the likelihood that scientists has made it easier to examine the smallest particles and forces within the atom to reveal more about the make-up of matter and the universe.
"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.
Ultimately, the collider aims to create conditions like they were 1 trillionth to 2 trillionths of a second after the Big Bang – which scientists think marked the creation of the universe billions of years ago.
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.