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The Last Days of the Hunt for the Higgs Boson

After a three-decade search, scientists appear to have found the elusive particle. Its peculiar properties suggest a new era in physics could be about to dawn

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Late on the evening of June 14, 2012, groups of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers working on the Large Hadron Collider began peering into a just opened data cache. This huge machine at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva, had been producing tremendous amounts of data in the months since it awoke from its winter-long slumber. But the more than 6,000 physicists who work on the LHC's two largest experiments were wary of unintentionally adding biases to their analysis. They had agreed to remain completely unaware of the results—performing what are called “blind” analyses—until mid-June, when all would suddenly be revealed in a frenzy of nocturnal activity.

Many of the young scientists worked through that night to untangle the newly freed threads of evidence. Although the LHC is a giant collider feeding multiple experiments, only the two largest ones—ATLAS and CMS—had been tasked with finding the Higgs boson, the long-sought particle that would complete the Standard Model of particle physics, the theoretical description of the subatomic world. Each massive detector records the subatomic debris spewing relentlessly from proton collisions in its midst; a detailed, independent accounting of these remnants can reveal fleeting new phenomena, including perhaps the elusive Higgs boson. Yet the detectors have to sift through the particle tracks and energy deposits while enduring a steady siege of low-energy background particles that threaten to swamp potentially interesting signals. It is like drinking from a fire hose while trying to ferret out a few tiny grains of gold with your teeth.

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