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Scientists say they are within a boson's breadth of finding 'God particle' (+video)

Physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, say that they have very strong evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle that, if it exists, would help explain why matter has mass.

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Fermilab theorist Joseph Lykken said the Higgs boson "gets at the center, for some physicists, of why the universe is here in the first place."

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Though an impenetrable concept to many, the Higgs boson has until now been just that — a concept intended to explain a riddle: How were subatomic particles, such as electrons, protons and neutrons, themselves formed? What gives them their mass?

The answer came in a theory first proposed by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others in the 1960s. It envisioned an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson.

The idea is that other particles attract Higgs bosons and the more they attract, the bigger their mass will be. Some liken the effect to a ubiquitous Higgs snowfield that affects other particles traveling through it depending on whether they are wearing, metaphorically speaking, skis, snowshoes or just shoes.

Officially, CERN is presenting its evidence this week at a physics conference in Australia but plans to accompany the announcement with meetings in Geneva. The two teams, ATLAS and CMS, then plan to publicly unveil more data on the Higgs boson at physics meetings in October and December. Each of the teams involves thousands of people working independently to ensure accuracy.

The scientific threshold for discovery is high. Scientists have to show with complex formulas that there's a less than 1 in 1.7 million chance that the findings are a statistical fluke. With two independent experiments showing that there's less than 1 in 16,000 chance of being wrong, it's a matter of how their work is put together.

Scientists with access to the new CERN data say it shows with a high degree of certainty that the Higgs boson may already have been glimpsed, and that by unofficially combining the separate results from ATLAS and CMS it can be argued that a discovery is near. Ellis says at least one physicist-blogger has done just that in a credible way.

CERN spokesman James Gillies said Monday that he would be "very cautious" about unofficial combinations of ATLAS and CMS data.

"Combining the data from two experiments is a complex task, which is why it takes time, and why no combination will be presented on Wednesday." he said.

But if the calculations are indeed correct, said John Guinon, a longtime physics professor at the University of California at Davis and author of the book "The Higgs Hunter's Guide," then it is fair to say that "in some sense we have reached the mountaintop."

Sean M. Carroll, a California Institute of Technology physicist flying to Geneva for Wednesday's announcement, said that if both ATLAS and CMS have independently reached these high thresholds on the Higgs boson, then "only the most curmudgeonly will not believe that they have found it."

Borenstein reported from Washington.

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