Scientists at CERN, Europe's atom-smashing laboratory, are preparing for the greatest experiment in the history of particle physics which could unveil a sub-atomic component, the Higgs Boson, which is so tantalising that it has been called "the God Particle".
Below the surface, in a vast circular tunnel below the French-Swiss border near Geneva, the final pieces of a gigantic machine are being set in place for the extraordinary investigation into the infinitely small. The "Higgs", named after a British physicist, Peter Higgs, who first proposed it in 1964, would fill a gaping hole in the benchmark theory for understanding the physical cosmos. Other work on the so-called Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could explain dark matter and dark energy — strange phenomena that, stunned astrophysicists discovered a few years ago, account for 96% of the Universe.
It could shed clues on the mystery of how the Universe came to be. And it may determine whether, as some physicists believe, space-time holds dimensions other than our own. "We are standing on the shoulders of giants. But we want to know better and we want to know more," said a leading CERN investigator, Juergen Schukraft.
A gamble costing almost $6 billion that has harnessed the labours of more than 2,000 physicists from nearly three dozen countries, the LHC is the biggest, most powerful high-energy particle accelerator ever built. "It's fantastic. It's like a baby, only it doesn't take nine months to be born, but 19 years," enthused Daniel Denegri, whose Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector is bidding to be first to snare the Higgs.
In July or possibly August, the LHC will start its work, initiating a cautious programme of tests before cranking up to full intensity.
In October, CERN (officially called the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) will invite heads of state and government to an official inauguration. Beams of hydrogen protons will whiz around at near-light speed in opposite directions until, bent by powerful superconducting magnets, they will smash together in four bus-sized detector chambers, where they will be annihilated at temperatures hotter than the Sun.
Swathed within the chambers are arrays of delicate sensors which will track the wreckage from the smash-up — the shower of quarks, muons, pions and other exotically-named members of the sub-atomic bestiary.
Data from these collisions will then be sifted by a massive computer farm above ground, which will send the most promising events on "The Grid", a miniature world wide Web.
The Grid comprises 11 institutions around the world that specialise in high-energy physics, which in turn will hand on the information to physics departments in universities. Each partner has agreed to give up space on its computers to store and pool data and analyses, which thus opens up an unprecedented global computational resource.