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Large Hadron Collider Turns Up the Heat in Higgs Hunt

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The aftermath of a particle collision at the LHC that included debris consistent with a Higgs boson. Credit: CERN

Europe's Large Hadron Collider, already the most powerful particle collider in history—and by a wide margin at that—is about to break its own record.

The collider outside Geneva will run at an energy of 4 trillion electron-volts (TeV) in 2012, up from 3.5 TeV in 2011, CERN announced February 13. (CERN is the European physics laboratory that operates the LHC.) The collider accelerates beams of protons to fantastic energies before smashing them together head-on. Those collisions take place inside colossal detectors that can register short-lived particles in the debris that are rare in everyday, low-energy life. With the increased energy of the beam and continued improvements in luminosity (the rate of collisions), LHC scientists are aiming to take three times as much collision data this year as was captured in 2011.

In the particle hunt, the most prized quarry is the elusive Higgs boson, a massive particle whose existence springs naturally from the leading explanation for why particles have mass. The LHC has already narrowed the window where the Higgs might be hiding, and in December project scientists announced that they had caught a tantalizing, preliminary and ultimately inconclusive whiff of the particle. When the collider starts back up in March after its annual winter shutdown, it will begin the run that ought to put to rest any questions about the existence of the Higgs. The run will end in November, when the LHC shuts down for 20 months while CERN beefs up the machine for even higher-energy running, approaching the collider's maximum energy of 7 TeV, in late 2014 or 2015.

"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," Sergio Bertolucci, CERN's research director, said in a prepared statement.

If all goes according to plan, LHC physicists will have an exciting new discovery to celebrate—and, of course, to ponder the implications of—during the long layoff.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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