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Researchers nudge 'God particle' search along

The four-decade search for the "God particle" is inching forward this week in Vancouver, with top physicists from across the country gathering at Simon Fraser University.

All of those researchers are part of the ATLAS Experiment, a $9.5-billion particle-accelerator project aimed at finding an elusive subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, still only a theoretical notion after 40 years and several costly failures to prove its existence.

Those with more of a populist bent have dubbed the Higgs boson the God particle -- a nod to the notion that its discovery could answer one of the three great remaining mysteries of particle physics: Why does matter have mass?

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It is a disarmingly simple question. "We're like five-year-olds asking why the sky is blue," jokes SFU physics professor Michel Vetterli, who is the head of a consortium building a computing centre in Canada that will parse a vast amount of data in search of the God particle.

Its discovery could shed new light on basic workings of the universe, including proof of the existence of black holes and even eventually incorporating the force of gravity into a unified physics theory -- a quest that many great minds in physics, including Albert Einstein, have pursued.

So far, those are just hopes, as ATLAS gears up this year for the start of its decade-long experiment, now scheduled to begin in the spring of 2008.

Involving 7,000 scientists from 54 countries over 10 years, ATLAS will be the biggest physics experiment ever. The main focus of the experiment is a 27-kilometre tunnel in Switzerland and France, the home of the Large Hadron Collider, which will shoot protons at enormous speeds. When those particles hit each other, they are annihilated, but leave an enormous amount of data behind.

Prof. Vetterli says the raw data alone would create a stack of CDs the height of five CN Towers.

Somewhere in that mountain of information might lurk the God particle.

And that is where Canada's role will be key.

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A $23-million data centre is being built just off the grounds of the University of British Columbia.

Along with nine other facilities across the globe, the data centre, called TRIUMF, will sift through the data emerging from the particle accelerator in Europe.

The B.C. facility will perform about 5 per cent of the work, Prof. Vetterli says.

This Friday, work will begin on picking who will supply the hardware for the data centre, an important milestone for the Canadian portion of the project.

"It will go into full throttle," he says.

But it is only a small step in a much bigger journey.

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The experiment has been in the works since the 1990s and the particle accelerator will not start up until next spring.

The actual experiment won't begin until later in 2008 and then will continue for 10 years.

There is no guarantee that the God particle will be found then, or ever.

But it is certain that the world of physics is gripped by even the possibility that it may unravel one of its great mysteries.

"This is much bigger than anything that's happened before," Prof. Vetterli says.

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