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Big bang race: US underdog takes on Large Hadron Collider

So, does the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory's Tevatron accelerator have a shot against the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland?

It may not be the question on the minds of many people - but it gets particle physicists psyched.

After all, they are racing to find evidence of a hypothetical particle called the Higgs boson, better known as the "God Particle" because it is believed to give mass to the matter that makes up the universe.

"This has been the holy grail of high energy physics for the last 30 years," Joe Lykken, a senior scientist at Fermilab in the Chicago suburb of Batavia, said in an interview last week.

Just months ago, it appeared that evidence of the Higgs would be found by scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) manning the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - not those at Fermilab.

The idea that Fermilab could pull ahead seemed about as likely as a vintage Ford Model T beating a Corvette in a drag race.

"People laughed at the idea of (Fermilab) finding the Higgs," Lykken said. "Our accelerator was not built to find the Higgs."

The LHC was. It's the world's largest atom smasher, far more powerful than the Tevatron. It kicked off with an impressive show of force in September, when beams of protons were fired at nearly the speed of light - first in a clockwise direction and then counterclockwise.

But just more than a week later, the LHC was shut down because of major damage blamed on a faulty wiring splice that caused an electrical arc. This month, the operator said repairs and additional safety features will keep it from firing up again until the end of September.

Fermilab scientists say their accelerator is running very well - raising hopes that its ongoing tests, smashing beams of protons into beams of antiprotons, eventually will result in Higgs particles.

Things are looking up money-wise as well.

"We were looking at huge budget cuts last year and now we are hoping to get stimulus package money and scrambling to see the best way to use it," Lykken said.

Scientist Dmitri Denisov said Thursday that Fermilab's "probability of discovering" the Higgs is between 50 and 90 per cent. Read: They think they have a real shot.

"The bottom line is we have a very reasonable chance to see hints of the Higgs particle by 2010 or 2011," Denisov said.

The scientific world widely believes that finding the Higgs boson would lead to a Nobel prize in physics for the discoverer."It's really what we live for, to have the opportunity to embark on such crazy quests," said Jacobo Konigsberg, a University of Florida physicist working at Fermilab.

He and others, including those who work with the LHC, play down competitive talk, pointing out how much the scientists work and cooperate with each other and readily share information.

The camaraderie was on display in September when Fermilab researchers showed up at work in the wee hours - in pyjamas, no less - to cheer as they watched via satellite as the LHC passed its first big test.

"It's not a race, really," said Harvey Newman, a Caltech physics professor who is heading a group of scientists conducting research at CERN.

For one thing, he said, Fermilab's accelerator may be only strong enough to show the likelihood of the Higgs, without providing the level of certainty that would classify its findings as a discovery.

Lykken agreed. "The Tevatron will never be taken as the last word and we will need the LHC to nail down whether it really is the Higgs," he said. "It would be an incredible triumph for the US program to take this underpowered accelerator at Fermilab and make this discovery."