GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. scientists said on Wednesday they expect to establish by the end of September whether the "Higgs boson," long believed to have played a vital role in the creation of the universe, exists or not.
Physicist Eric James from Fermilab near Chicago told a conference in the French city of Grenoble that his team -- working in parallel with scientists at CERN research lab near Geneva -- were fast narrowing down the mass range where the particle could be hiding.
The Higgs is the last missing piece of the so-called Standard Model of physics and has been thought to be the particle that gave mass to the debris of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years, creating galaxies, stars and planets.
Both the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Fermilab's Tevatron teams have been seeking the boson, a microscopic particle, in the product of trillions of mega-velocity particle collisions effectively recreating the primeval explosion.
Monday, CERN's director-general Rolf Heuer told the Grenoble meeting of top international physicists that the Higgs had so far evaded his LHC researchers and that he believed they could find it next year.
But the U.S. research center put up a much tighter timetable.
Fermilab Today, its daily bulletin, said James reported in Grenoble that researchers on the centre's Tevatron collider -- friendly rival to the LHC -- were stepping up their experiments in the search for the Higgs.
They were now "extremely close to the sensitivity needed either to see a substantial excess of Higgs-like events or to rule out the existence of the particle," the bulletin declared in a summary of James's report.
Earlier research in the Tevatron, in operation since 1983, and in the much bigger LHC, operating since March 2010, had left only a narrow window for the Higgs --posited by British scientist Peter Higgs some 40 years ago.
And the experiments in Tevatron, Fermilab said, "are on track to collect enough data by the end of September 2011" -- when the U.S. collider is due to shut down with a replacement not yet in view -- "to close that window."
Last weekend scientists in Grenoble, at the annual conference of the European Physical Society, had been encouraged by reports from CERN and Fermilab showing that the Higgs might be emerging from hiding.
Unusual fluctuations in the data from the explosions could suggest they were getting close to the Higgs, some physicists reported. But others cautioned that these could be misreadings or random anomalies.
Higgs, who is tipped to get a Nobel prize if his theory is proven correct and the particle is identified, has always left open the possibility that he might be wrong. "If it doesn't exist, there must be something else like it," he once said.
(Editing by Roger Atwood)