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Rolf-Dieter Heuer
Michel Euler  /  AP
Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general for Europe's CERN particle physics center, gestures as he speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday.
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updated 1/27/2013 2:34:06 PM ET 2013-01-27T19:34:06

The world should know with certainty by the middle of this year whether a subatomic particle discovered by scientists is a long-sought Higgs boson, the head of the world's largest atom smasher says.

Rolf Heuer, director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, said he is confident that "towards the middle of the year, we will be there." By then, he said reams of data from the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border near Geneva should have been assessed.

The timing could also help Scottish physicist Peter Higgs win a Nobel Prize, Heuer said in an interview with The Associated Press in the Swiss resort of Davos on Saturday.

CERN's atom smasher helped scientists declare in July their discovery of a new subatomic particle that Heuer calls "very, very like" a Higgs boson, that promises a new realm of understanding the universe.

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The machine, which has been creating high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, is being put to rest early this year. The data from it, however, takes longer to analyze.

"Suppose the Higgs boson is a special snowflake. So you have to identify the snowflake, in a big snowstorm, in front of a background of snowfields," Heuer said by way of analogy. "That is very difficult. You need a tremendous amount of snowfall in order to identify the snowflakes and this is why it takes time."

He said the Standard Model of particle physics describes only 5 percent of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.

To explain how subatomic particles, such as electrons, protons and neutrons, were themselves formed, Higgs and others in the 1960s envisioned an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson.

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The idea was that other particles interact with Higgs bosons, and the more they interact, the bigger their mass will be. But a big question remains: Is this new particle a variation of the Higgs boson, or the same as the single Higgs boson that was predicted?

The phrase "God particle," coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, is used by laymen, not physicists, more as an explanation for how the subatomic universe works than how it all started.

"Now, if there is a deviation in one of the properties of this Higgs boson, that means we open a new window, for example, hopefully into the part of the dark universe, the 95 percent of the unknown universe," said Heuer.

"If you find the deviation," he added, "that means if it is not the — but a — Higgs boson, then we might find a fantastic window into the dark universe so we would make another giant leap from the visible to the dark."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Interactive: Inside the big bang machine

Explainer: What’s a hadron? Tour the particle zoo

  • Image: Elementary particles
    Fermilab

    The Standard Model of particle physics is one of science's most successful theories, enabling the development of devices ranging from light bulbs, to microwave ovens and television, to quantum computing devices. The Standard Model is also one of the oddest theories, because it lays out a dizzying menagerie of hundreds of subatomic particles. At its heart are 16 types of elementary particles ... plus at least one more mysterious particle that scientists are spending billions of dollars to detect.

    Click on "Next" to get the full rundown.

  • Quarks

    Image: Quarks and gluons
    Berkeley Lab

    Six "flavors" of quarks have been detected: up and down, charm and strange, top and bottom. Quarks are almost always found in different combinations, bound together by gluons (more on those later). Particles built up from quarks and gluons are called hadrons. The Large Hadron Collider is so named because it's a large collider that smashes hadrons together.

    Three-quark combinations fit in the category of baryons. The best-known baryons are the proton (with two up quarks and one down quark) and the neutron (with two down quarks and one up quark).

    Particles that have one quark and one antiquark fit in the category of mesons. For example, the pion, or pi meson, contains an up quark and an anti-down quark.

  • Leptons

    Image: Single electrons in helium
    Brown University

    Six "flavors" of leptons have been detected: The negatively charged electron is the best-known lepton — along with its antimatter counterpart, the positron. This photo shows the path of single electrons passing through liquid helium, in an experiment devised by Brown University researchers.

    The muon is also negatively charged, but it's about 207 times as massive as the electron. ("Who ordered that?" physicist Isidor Rabi reportedly asked.) The negatively charged tau particle is even bigger — 3,477 times as massive as the electron — but it decays into other particles in less than a trillionth of a second.

    Each of those leptons has a neutrino associated with it: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino. Neutrinos interact only weakly with other particles, and they zip through our planet virtually without a trace. Physicists only recently determined that they have mass, but there's still a great deal of mystery surrounding the ghostly particles.

  • Force carriers

    Image: Graviton
    Fermilab

    The Standard Model sets aside a category for particles that are associated with force fields. The effect of a field can be viewed as involving an exchange of such force-carrying particles.

    Four elementary force-carrying particles have been detected. The best-known force carrier is the photon — which plays a part in the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light. The gluon binds quarks together through the strong nuclear force. The weak nuclear force involves the exchange of W and Z bosons. The W boson can carry a positive or a negative charge, while the Z boson is neutral.

    If gravity could be incorporated into the Standard Model, the force-carrying particle would be called the graviton (shown here in an artist's depiction). However, gravitons have not yet been detected, and at least for now, such particles are not accounted for in the Standard Model.

  • Bosons vs. fermions

    Image: Bosons vs. fermions
    Rice Univ. via AIP

    All force-carrying particles are bosons, but not all bosons are force carriers. The difference has to do with a property known as particle spin. Particles with a fractional spin value (for example, electrons, protons and neutrons) are fermions. Two identical fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state. This is a property that keeps electrons from collapsing into a jumble, and thus makes chemical reactions possible.

    All particles with a whole-integer spin value are classified as bosons, and such particles can occupy the same quantum state even if they're identical. The photon is the best-known type of boson.

    Even atoms can be classified as fermions and bosons. This photo shows how atom clouds of lithium-7 (bosons) and lithium-6 (fermions) behave at low temperatures. The bosons collapse into a compact cloud, while the fermions can't squeeze that closely together.

  • The mysterious Higgs

    Image: Higgs as seen by CMS
    Ianna Osborne / CERN / CMS Collection

    The Higgs boson is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that has not yet been detected. The Higgs is the main quarry for physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. This image is a simulation of the Higgs' signature as it might appear in one of the LHC's detectors.

    The Higgs boson, named after Scottish theorist Peter Higgs, is thought to be associated with a field that endows some particles (such as the weak nuclear force's W and Z bosons) with mass, while leaving the electromagnetic force's photons without mass.

    This Higgs field may have played a role at the very beginnings of the universe: Physicists believe that at the highest energies, the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces were unified, but something led to "electroweak symmetry breaking" as the infant cosmos cooled. That would be why the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force are distinct in the current universe. The Large Hadron Collider could shed new light on this mysterious Higgs mechanism.

  • Why so complicated?

    Image: Particle zoo
    Tim Jones / McDonald Observatory / HETDEX

    Hadrons and leptons? Baryons and mesons? Fermions and bosons? Sometimes it seems as if particle physicists set up these classifications just to keep outsiders totally confused. But for researchers, these occasionally overlapping categories are useful for figuring out how different types of particles interact with each other.

    In a sense, it's as if we've been talking about the game of chess but have gotten only to the point of naming the different pieces on the board: black pieces and white ones, pawns and knights, bishops and rooks, kings and queens. The real meaning of the game comes out when you start studying how the pieces perform and interact.

    To delve into the deeper meaning of the Standard Model, you can visit The Particle Adventure at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "A Subatomic Venture" at CERN, or Particle Physics UK.

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