Atom smasher to set new power record

Swiss scientists plan to increase the juice flowing through the world’s largest atom smasher to 8 trillion electron volts, accelerating not just protons but the quest for the most elusive particle in modern science.

By boosting energy through the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) 14 percent -- and breaking a power record set by the LHC itself last year -- the team hopes to further experiments into the microscopic world of particle physics. The ultimate goal: a tiny bit of matter called the Higgs boson, which may or may not even exist.

“By the time the LHC goes into its first long stop at the end of this year, we will either know that a Higgs particle exists or have ruled out the existence of a Standard Model Higgs,” said CERN’s Research Director, Sergio Bertolucci.

The Large Hadron Collider is one of the biggest science experiments in the world; scientists working on it seem to speak their own language. A statement issued by CERN, the scientific body governing work at the collider, stated that “the data target for 2012 is 15 inverse femtobarns for ATLAS and CMS, three times higher than in 2011.”

You don’t say.

That bit of obfuscation is a measure of the number of particle collisions CERN hopes to observe next year. (The term barn was coined in 1942 by Indiana physicists seeking a “catchy unit name for discussing the size of an atomic nucleus of uranium,” explained a story on Stanford University's website.)

Each observation of a collision allows scientists to pore over the fragments of particles that are left over, on a quest for the one smallest bit of all: the Higgs.

The oddly named boson is still just a theory, infinitesimally tiny and thought to be the fundamental building block of matter -- ultimately responsible for giving mass to all things. And though scientists have closed in on the particle, they have yet to conclusively find it.

In December, scientists announced that they had seen tantalizing hints of the Higgs, a signal that allowed them to narrow down the quest to certain bands of energy.

"This is the region where, if you see an excess, there's a hint that something's up," said Guido Tonelli, a spokesman for the CMS experiment, at a seminar discussing the December findings. CMS, or the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, is one of the largest international scientific collaborations in history and part of the LHC.

By juicing the power, scientists hope to continue pursuit of that elusive bit, and plan to pore over that band of energy.

“When we started operating the LHC for physics in 2010, we chose the lowest safe beam energy consistent with the physics we wanted to do,” said Steve Myers, director for accelerators and technology with CERN.

“Two good years of operational experience with beam and many additional measurements made during 2011 give us the confidence to safely move up a notch, and thereby extend the physics reach of the experiments before we go into the LHC’s first long shutdown,” he said.

But even as they closed in on the Higgs -- or if not the mysterious boson, at least something -- Fabiola Gianotti, a scientist who works at the LHC, cautioned that it was too early to draw any conclusions. The signal they detected in December may or may not be the Higgs, in other words.

"I think it would be extremely kind of the Higgs boson to be here," she said at the time. "More studies and more data are needed. The next few months will be very exciting ... I don't know what the conclusions will be."