LHC eyes mystery particle
Geneva - Physicists seeking to prove that many ideas from science fiction are really fact are confident they can track a mystery particle that makes the universe work by the end of 2012, their chief said on Tuesday.
Rolf Heuer, director-general of the Cern research centre near Geneva, said the conviction that the so-called Higgs boson is within reach had led to a decision to extend the current run of its "Big Bang" simulator for an extra year.
"Running through 2012 will give us the data needed to turn hints into a discovery," said Heuer in an interview with the centre's weekly Bulletin.
He said proof could also be found of super-symmetry, dubbed Susy by physicists, linked to the dark matter thought to make up 23% of the cosmos - of which only 4% is actually visible - may also be tracked down.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the world's biggest scientific machine that has been probing the origins of the universe since last March 31 - was originally due to have been closed down for 12 months at the end of this year.
But at a mountain retreat in the French Alps last weekend, key researchers and engineers agreed its performance had been so good and it was producing so much information that shutting down so soon would be a mistake.
"With the LHC running so well in 2010, and further improvements in performance expected to come, there is a real chance that exciting new physics may be within our grasp by the end of the (2011) year," said Heuer.
If nature is kind to the Cern researchers, he added, the Higgs boson - believed to be the agent which turned mass into solid matter soon after the Big Bang that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago - could be showing itself.
By the end of 2012, if current success in studying the billions of speed-of-light particle collisions produced in the LHC is maintained, solid proof of its existence should be found, said Heuer.
The only other machine in the world searching for the boson is the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago in the US. But the less-powerful Tevatron is due to be shut down permanently later this year.
That will leave the LHC at the 21-nation Cern - formally the European Centre for Nuclear Research but soon to open up to other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America - as the world's only major collider.
Under the new plans, the machine housed in a circular tunnel under the French-Swiss border near the Jura mountains will close for a year in 2013, allowing technicians to adapt it for much higher particle collision speeds.
In the latter part of the decade, Heuer and his scientists hope they will be able to prove the existence of not only dark or invisible matter but also the dark energy thought to make up about 73% of the universe.
They may also study notions such as the existence of other dimensions beyond the four known ones - length, breadth, depth and time - as well as parallel universes and even time travel.