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You are here: Allan's TIME > News > God Particle

Back-up copy until Wash Post archive copy can be located

Paris, Tuesday, September 19, 2000
Glimpse of 'God Particle' Reported
Atom-Smasher Upgrade on Hold as Physicists Pursue Object

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By Curt Suplee Washington Post Service
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WASHINGTON - Officials at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the giant European atom-smasher center outside Geneva, have decided to delay the start of construction on the $6 billion Large Hadron Collider - to be the most powerful particle accelerator ever built - because scientists there may already have observed one of the phantom objects the new project was designed to find. That entity is so important that a Nobel physics laureate, Leon Lederman, calls it ''the God particle.'' It lies at the heart of one of the most important mysteries of modern science: What mechanism in nature confers the property of mass on all the stuff in the universe?

This month, officials of the laboratory - known as CERN, its French-language acronynm - were scheduled to shut down the world's largest accelerator. The 25-kilometer (16-mile) underground ring would then undergo a five-year makeover that would turn it into the Large Hadron Collider.

At the top of the project's 10-most-wanted list is the discovery of the so-far theoretical particle, which actually goes by the name of ''Higgs boson'' or ''the Higgs'' for short.

Bosons are particles that carry forces, and the Higgs boson is thought to be the force-bearer of the hypothetical Higgs field, a ubiquitous, invisible, space-pervading nexus that gives everything in the cosmos its mass - in much the same way that the photon carries the force of electric and magnetic fields. Officials of the European laboratory call it ''the missing link,'' the last component of the Standard Model - or consensus view of energy and matter at the smallest scales - that has not yet been observed.

There may be several kinds of Higgs bosons, named for a University of Edinburgh physicist, Peter Higgs, who first postulated a mass-conferring field. In its most basic form, the Higgs has a large predicted mass of about 100 to 200 times that of the proton. To see a particle of that magnitude, scientists had long assumed that they would need an accelerator much more powerful than the European laboratory's 11-year-old Large Electron-Positron Collider, or even the much stronger collider at Fermilab near Chicago.

In accelerators, particle collisions generate huge localized bursts of energy. And energy is convertible into mass and vice versa. So the more energy a collider can create, the more massive and plentiful the particles that result when that energy congeals into matter. Hence the need for the Large Hadron Collider.

But then, a few weeks ago, word started getting around that particle-hunters at the European laboratory might have sighted the Higgs at the Large Electron-Positron Collider, which physicists had tweaked to energies well beyond its original specifications.

On Thursday, the lab's director-general, Luciano Maiani, decided to extend the experimental run of the accelerator until Nov. 2.

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