Physicists, including Caltech scientists, say they have evidence that all but proves the existence of the "God particle," the elusive subatomic particle believed to give all matter in the universe size and shape.
Scientists at the world's biggest atom smasher plan to announce Wednesday that they have nearly confirmed the primary plank of a theory that could restructure the understanding of why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give an object weight.
They have a footprint and a shadow, and the only thing left is to see for themselves the elusive subatomic particle believed to give all matter in the universe size and shape.
The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton's discovery: It was there all the time before Newton explained it. But now scientists know what it is and can put that knowledge to further use.
"It's like the Holy Grail, it's the lynch pin of our current theory," said Dr. Mark Wise, of Caltech.
The focus of the excitement is the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle long sought by physicists.
The world, and even the universe, would look very different without it, Wise said.
For one thing, atoms – the basic building blocks of everything – would be a thousand times bigger, but would weigh exactly the same.
"We need something like it there, to make any sense of what we observe in nature," Wise said.
Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, say that they have compiled vast amounts of data that show the footprint and shadow of the particle, even though it has never actually been glimpsed.
But two independent teams of physicists are cautious after decades of work and billions of dollars spent. They don't plan to use the word "discovery." They say they will come as close as possible to a "eureka" announcement without overstating their findings.
Decades ago scientists, including many at Caltech, started chasing a theory that a "God Particle"—but there was a problem: it only lives for a “tiny amount of time” Wise said.
CERN's atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, has been creating high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.
"I agree that any reasonable outside observer would say, 'It looks like a discovery,'" said British theoretical physicist John Ellis, a professor at King's College London who has worked at CERN since the 1970s. "We've discovered something which is consistent with being a Higgs."
The phrase "God particle," coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, is used by laymen, not physicists, more as an explanation for how the subatomic universe works than how it all started.
Rob Roser, who leads the search for the Higgs boson at the Fermilab in Chicago, said: "Particle physicists have a very high standard for what it takes to be a discovery," and he thinks it is a hair's breadth away.
Roser compared the results that scientists will announce Wednesday to finding the fossilized imprint of a dinosaur: "You see the footprints and the shadow of the object, but you don't actually see it."