Riddle of 'God particle' may be solved by 2012
London - Physicists said on Tuesday they believed that by the end of 2012 they could determine whether a theorised particle called the Higgs boson, which has unleashed a gruelling decades-long hunt, exists or not.
"I'm pretty confident that towards the end of 2012 we will have an answer to the Shakespeare question for the Higgs boson - to be, or not to be?" Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), told a press conference at Britain's Royal Society.
Cern runs the world's biggest particle collider, located on the outskirts of Geneva.
One of the first tasks assigned to the giant machine has been to step up the quest for the Higgs to resolve one of physics' great puzzles: why some particles have mass and others have little, or none.
The Higgs - named after British physicist Peter Higgs who mooted its existence in 1964 - is one of the last missing pieces in the so-called Standard Model, a unified theory of all the particles and forces in the universe.
To be, or not to be?
"By the end of 2012 we will either discover the Standard Model Higgs Boson, if it exists, or we will rule it out," said Fabiola Gianotti, who is the spokesperson for Cern's biggest particle-collider lab called Atlas.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located in a 27km ring-shaped tunnel 100m below ground in a complex straddling the French-Swiss border.
It is designed to accelerate sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light and then smash them together.
The particles whizz around the racetrack in opposite directions, and powerful magnets then bend their direction so that some of the particles are forced to collide in house-sized labs that record the sub-atomic rubble that tumbles out.
Collisions briefly stoke temperatures 100 000 times hotter than the sun, fleetingly replicating conditions which prevailed in split-seconds after the "Big Bang" that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago.
In this primordial soup, novel particles may lurk that will resolve mysteries clouding our understanding of fundamental matter, scientists say.
Enigmas include the Higgs - dubbed "the God particle" for being mysterious yet ubiquitous - as well as suspected "supersymmetrical" particles that could explain dark matter, which comprises about 23% of the universe.
The first proton collisions at the LHC occurred on September 10 2008. The smasher then had to endure a 14-month shutdown to fix technical problems.
The LHC recently notched up the biggest-ever energy release from particle collisions, although this is still only half of its design capacity.
It was due to shut down at the start of 2012 to allow work enabling it to crank up to full power.
However, a decision was made several weeks ago to delay the closure for a year to help the search for the Higgs, said Gianotti.