Date: Saturday, February 17, 2007 @ 15:25:33 GMT
Topic: Science

Scientists in three locations on the globe are locked in a multi-billion-dollar race to cross the boundaries of knowledge in particle physics.

Their quest: find the secrets of dark matter and the "God particle" -- a sub-atomic particle that is fundamental for understanding the nature of matter, but so elusive that, physicists quip, it can only be compared to divinity.

Last week, an international consortium stepped up the pace by announcing in Beijing a design for the world's most expensive atom smasher -- the 6.7-billion-dollar International Linear Collider (ILC).

In a double tunnel 31 kilometers (20 miles) long, particle physicists would collide electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, at energies of 500 billion electron volts.

The scheme -- which could be extended to 50 kilometers (31 miles) and a trillion electron volts -- will hurl these particles to close to the speed of light.

The resultant collision could unlock dark matter and dark energy, the invisible, enigmatic substances that together are thought to comprise 96 percent of the mass of the Universe.

Engineering studies for the ILC will start later this year with the idea of making a decision in 2010 on whether to press ahead with building the machine. If all goes well, ground will be broken in 2012 and the collider itself will be fired up at the end of the next decade.

"The ILC probably represents the maximum that can be achieved with this type of technology," Guy Wormser, head of France's Linear Accelerator Laboratory, who took part in the Beijing meeting.

Scientists in the United States and Europe, meanwhile, are grappling to be first to detect the most eagerly-sought particle in physics -- the Higgs Boson.

Construed in the 1960s by a British physicist, Peter Higgs, the Boson is thought to exist in an all-pervading field, giving all other particles their mass.

If the Higgs exists, it would fill a worrying gap in the Standard Model, the century-old notional structure for describing the fundamental nature of matter. But if the Higgs doesn't exist... it will be back to the drawing board.

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