The Atom Smashers

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Physicists at Fermilab, the most powerful particle accelerator in the United States, are closing in on one of the universe’s best-kept secrets: what is known as the Holy Grail of physics or the reason why everything has mass. With the Tevatron, an underground particle accelerator buried deep beneath the Illinois prairie, Fermilab scientists smash matter together, accelerating protons and antiprotons in a four-mile-long ring at nearly the speed of light. They do this to find the God particle—the Higgs boson—whose existence was theorized nearly 40 years ago by Scottish scientist Peter Higgs.

The physicists searching for the Higgs boson are excited; they may be approaching the discovery of a lifetime and there’s almost certainly a Nobel Prize for whoever finally finds it. Wars, natural disasters and a growing deficit are chipping away at America’s ability to maintain its role as science leader. In the midst of this uncertainty, Fermilab struggles to stay alive, just as a new and more powerful accelerator in Europe prepares to open its doors and potentially make the discovery first.

This tightening race makes Fermilab physicists like Nobel Laureate and elder statesman Leon Lederman, rock band front man ben Kilminster and newlyweds John Conway and Robin Erbacher contemplate their future in physics. Despite dwindling support, the scientists show infectious enthusiasm as they wrangle the cantankerous Tevatron to record-breaking energies, increasing the odds of a discovery.

Then, in December 2006, research findings indicate that the Higgs might be lighter than previously believed and, therefore, easier for Fermilab to find. Then comes the bombshell: governmental budgets are slashed and a key project is canceled at Fermilab. The Tevatron is scheduled to be turned off permanently, unless a major discovery is made. A race to the finish begins.

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