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Higgs boson: Physicists close in on the 'God particle'

At a seminar at CERN in Geneva Tuesday, two groups using independent means for seeking the Higgs boson reported seeing tantalizing hints of the presence of the 'God particle.'

Guido Tonelli (R), CMS experiment spokesperson, gestures next to Rolf Heuer (C), CERN Director General, and Fabiola Gianotti, ATLAS experiment spokesperson, during a news conference at the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Meyrin, near Geneva December 13, 2011. In a seminar held today, the CMS and ATLAS experiments presented the status of their research for the Standard Model Higgs boson.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

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In the search for what some have dubbed the "God particle," physicists have gotten a whiff of something interesting, but they aren't close to claiming discovery yet.

The quarry: the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle associated with a universal field permeating space that imparts mass to other particles as they encounter it.

At a two-hour seminar at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva Tuesday, two groups using independent means for seeking the Higgs boson reported seeing tantalizing hints of the Higgs' presence.

But the data were barely distinguishable from the signals one could expect from random noise.

"What we see right now is in agreement with what you would expect if there is a Higgs, or if there is not – the data are in agreement with both at this point," says Pauline Gagnon, a senior research physicist with Indiana University at Bloomington and currently at CERN.

Yet both groups saw their faint signals in multiple channels their detectors cover and within the same narrow range of masses.

"That's where it becomes interesting," Dr. Gagnon says.

It's as though two breeds of hunting dogs caught the same faint scent, just enough to send them baying down the same trail.

The Higgs field represents an explanation to a problem that has bedeviled physicists for some 50 years, notes Boston University physicist Lawrence Sulak: how particles acquire mass.

"The proton is 2,000 times heavier than an electron" he explains. "No one has the slightest idea why."

Until the particle is discovered, the Higgs-field explanation remains largely theoretical. Other groups have tried to find the Higgs boson using less-powerful particle accelerators than the one researchers are using at CERN.

Those efforts succeeded in reducing the range of masses one could expect the Higgs boson to exhibit. But no one has yet had the Eureka! moment.

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