The search for the so-called "God particle", which would explain why matter has mass and there is gravity in the Universe, could be over by the end of next year, a leading scientist involved in the project predicts.
Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), near Geneva, said that if the sub-atomic particle known as the Higgs boson exists, as theory predicts it does, then Cern's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment will detect it by the end of 2012.
However, if the LHC experiment fails to find evidence of the Higgs then it means that something even more mysterious must explain mass and gravity. This would inevitably mean the abandonment of the golden rules of physics, known as the "standard model", that have been established for decades, Dr Heuer said.
"I am pretty confident that towards the end of 2012 we will have an answer to the Shakespeare question of the Higgs boson: to be or not to be?," Dr Heuer said. "But not finding the Higgs will not be a failure, on the contrary.
"If it does not exist, and therefore we do not find it, then we must find something else which takes up the job of the Higgs, namely giving up mass to elementary particles."
The LHC is built 100m underground in a circular tunnel 27km long in order to shield the sensitive equipment from the external environment, which could effect the results of bombarding two beams of protons travelling in opposite directions at 99.999999 per cent of the speed of light. By ratcheting up the power of the proton beams, scientists hope to create highly energetic collisions which will tease out the existence of the Higgs boson, if it exists.
Guido Tonelli, who works on one of the sets of detectors attached to the LHC, said physics was entering a "magic moment" which could change the way we view and understand the world and the wider universe. "Physics will not be the same after 2012. This will probably change our vision of the world. It will have an impact on the future, depending on what we discover or don't discover."
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