GENEVA (Reuters) - British physicist Peter Higgs said on Monday it should soon be possible to prove the existence of a force which gives mass to the universe and makes life possible -- as he first argued 40 years ago.
Higgs said he believes a particle named the "Higgs boson", which originates from the force, will be found when a vast particle collider at the CERN research centre on the Franco-Swiss border begins operating fully early next year.
"The likelihood is that the particle will show up pretty quickly ... I'm more than 90 percent certain that it will," Higgs told journalists.
The 78-year-old's original efforts in the early 1960s to explain why the force, dubbed the Higgs field, must exist were dismissed at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Today, the existence of the invisible field is widely accepted by scientists, who believe it came into being milliseconds after the Big Bang created the universe some 15 billion years ago.
Finding the Higgs boson would prove this theory right.
CERN's new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) aims to simulate conditions at the time of that primeval inferno by smashing particles together at near light-speed and so unlock many secrets of the universe.
Higgs was in Geneva to visit CERN for the first time in 13 years in advance of the launch.
Scientists at the centre hope the process will produce clear signs of the boson, dubbed the "God particle" by some, to the displeasure of Higgs, an atheist.
He came up with his theory to explain why mass disappears as matter is broken down to its smallest constituent parts -- molecules, atoms and quarks.
The normally media-shy physicist, who has spent most of his career at Scotland's Edinburgh University, postulated that matter was weightless at the exact moment of the Big Bang and then much of it promptly gained mass.
This, he argued, must be due to a field which stuck to particles as they passed through it and made them heavy. If this had not happened, matter would have floated free in space and stars and planets would never have formed.
Higgs said he hoped the elusive boson -- which an earlier but less powerful collider at CERN and another at the U.S. Fermilab had failed to detect -- would be identified before his 80th birthday in 2009.
"If it doesn't," he said, "I shall be very, very puzzled."
But there may be no immediate visible proof -- despite some fanciful portrayals of what it might look like -- of the boson's appearance on the ultra-sophisticated computers used by CERN scientists to track the billions of collisions in the LHC.
"It all happens so fast that the appearance of the boson may be hidden in the data collected, and it could take a long time for the analysis to find it," said Higgs.
"I may have to keep the champagne on ice for a while yet."
Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Chloe Fussell