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It's On! "God Particle" Race Intensifies as Obama Tries to Keep Particle Smasher in Hunt

22 October 2009 2:16 pm
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Watch out, Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—the U.S. is not quitting the race to find the famed Higgs boson just yet.

If all goes as planned, physicists at the last dedicated U.S. particle physics laboratory will get to run their particle smasher an extra year. The Department of Energy has requested money in its next budget to run the Tevatron Collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, in 2011. That proposal would give Fermilab researchers a shot at bagging a long-sought particle called the Higgs boson before scientists at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, can spot it with the more-powerful LHC, which is supposed to finally start smashing particle in December.

"I'm behind it, and the Secretary [Steven Chu] is behind it, too," William Brinkman, head of DOE's Office of Science, told ScienceInsider this morning during a meeting of the office's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel in Washington, D.C. "There's a lot of competition" for the approximately $20 million that would be needed, says Brinkman, "but we think there's an opportunity for us to make progress, and we want to do it." The proposal is part of the department's budget request now being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget prior to the submission of the president's 2011 budget request to Congress in February.

Physicists believe the Higgs boson is key to explaining how all particles gain mass—as Higgs bosons lurking “virtually” in the vacuum drag on all particles.

Fermilab researchers have already collected enough data to say that it most likely does exist in a small range of masses around 175 times that of the proton. But if they can collect data through 2011, then Fermilab researchers ought to be able to either see signs of the Higgs—or say with high confidence that it doesn’t exist—in a much wider range from about 120 to 195 times the mass of the proton, says Young-Kee Kim, deputy director at Fermilab. Fermilab has been pushing to continue running their 21 26-year-old accelerator since shortly after it became clear that a September 2008 breakdown with the LHC would require months of repairs.

Brinkman, who took over the $4.9 billion science office in late June, also had some harsh words for advocates of the International Linear Collider, a 30-kilometer-long straight-shot particle smasher that would study in detail the new particles and phenomena physicists hope to glimpse at the LHC. "With all the contingencies, you're talking about $20 billion. In my opinion, that price pushes it way out into the future, and onto the backburner." But Brinkman still sees a role for Fermilab, which is currently developing plans for new accelerators to come after the Tevatron shuts down, including an intense proton source in the near future. "I'd like to see Fermilab do something with a muon accelerator. That would be something novel, rather than spending time beating our brains out building the next biggest accelerator." Such a project would be extremely ambitious, however, as it would require collecting, accelerating, and colliding particles with a lifetime of only fraction of a second.

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