Like all good marathons, the race to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider began with much fanfare but has now left spectators with little to do but wait until someone nears the finish line (at which point things will become very exciting again). But there’s reason to think LHC researchers at may have the finish line in sight: Scientists and administrators there are seriously considering extending the LHC’s current research run by an extra year through the end of 2012.
While 2012 may still seem a long way away, CERN’s willingness to extend the current research period suggests scientists really do believe they can crack the Higgs code in the next 24 months – and do without cranking the experiment up to full power. The LHC was scheduled to run until the end of 2011, at which point it would be shut down for a year for maintenance and a serious upgrade that would allow the particle accelerator to smash particles at its full potential strength of 14 TeV (teraelectronvolts). Right now the LHC is smashing particles at half that energy.
But given the data they’ve collected so far, researchers at the LHC’s major experiments think they’re quite close to finding the Higgs boson, the elusive – and as-yet theoretical – particle that endows all other particles with mass. The Higgs’ existence is necessary to the Standard Model of particle physics, so its discovery (or disproving) would contribute massively to physicists’ understanding of the universe.
But with other particle accelerators like Fermilab’s Tevatron working feverishly to beat the LHC to a Higgs discovery, researchers at CERN want to keep searching for it through 2012. Then again, maybe CERN’s administrators are bowing to good old-fashioned peer pressure. Said Sergio Bertolucci, CERN’s director for research and computing, via the Journal Nature’s Web site: “If we stop the machine with 3,000 people apiece in the experiments waiting for data, there is no way we could get home at night without having slashed tyres on our cars.”
The plan to extend the LHC’s research period will officially be decided in January, but slashed tires or no it appears right now that the world’s largest science experiment will get an extra year of Higgs hunting in 2012.