The attendance of a certain Peter Higgs at the Cern progress report on the hunt for the fabled ‘God particle’ has led to fevered speculation that, bar a very unlikely computer error, it’s finally been found.
Why? Because the particle – the Higgs boson – was named after the Edinburgh University emeritus professor of physics, who is famous for predicting its existence.
Other leading physicists have also been invited to the press conference in Switzerland on Wednesday.
One, Tom Kibble, the emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, was one of them.
He can’t attend, but told The Sunday Times that “it must be a pretty positive result for them to be asking us out there”.
Scientists at the press conference are expected to say they are on the brink of confirming the existence of the Higgs boson.
Almost, but not quite. The process of proving the Higgs is real is a gradual one, similar to getting closer to a familiar face seen from afar.
In December last year scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the "Big Bang" particle accelerator which recreates conditions a billionth of a second after the birth of the universe - revealed they had caught a first tantalising glimpse of the Higgs.
Since then they have sifted through vast quantities of data from innumerable high energy collisions in an effort to reduce the odds of being wrong.
A statistical standard of proof known as "five sigma" would be the ultimate confirmation of a discovery. In this case, the chances of a mistake are one in a million.
Tomorrow the scientists at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, are likely to announce a significant step further towards the five sigma goal. Possibly, they might even be at "four sigma", a hair's-breadth away from having the Higgs in their grasp.
In that case the final "discovery" of the Higgs particle will be virtually a foregone conclusion.
Cern's director for research and computing, Sergio Bertolucci, said: "We now have more than double the data we had last year. That should be enough to see whether the trends we were seeing in the 2011 data are still there, or whether they have gone away. It's a very exciting time."
At the LHC, scientists shoot two beams of protons - the "hearts" of atoms - at each other round 27 kilometres of circular tunnels at almost the speed of light.
When the protons smash together the enormous energies involved cause them to decay into an array of more fundamental particles. These may then decay further into yet more particles.
By following the decay patterns, scientists hope to see the "fingerprint" of the Higgs boson.
The importance of the Higgs boson is hard to understate, but quite difficult to grasp.
Put simply, scientists don’t know for certain why the universe has mass – why matter is glued together – and think that the Higgs is the answer.
It’s the missing part of the Standard Model – which sums up our knowledge of particles, forces and interactions in the universe.
However, at present, there is nothing in the model to account for mass, and the fact that some particles weigh more than others.
According to the theory, the Higgs boson is the emissary of an all-pervading "Higgs field" that gives matter mass.
The more particles interact with the field, the more massive they become and the heavier they are.
A standard model universe without the Higgs boson could not exist. Everything would behave as light does, floating freely and not combining with anything else.
There would be no atoms, made from conglomerations of protons, neutrons and electrons, no ordinary matter, and no us.
On Monday, American scientists at Fermilab, the US high-energy facility near Chicago, announced that they had detected a Higgs signal with a statistical significance of 2.9 sigma. There is only a one in 550 chance that the signal is due to a statistical accident.
The US team, operating the Tevatron particle accelerator, is conducting its own search for the Higgs by looking at the data from a different angle.
At the LHC, scientists are focusing on the Higgs' decay into two energetic photons. Their Fermilab colleagues are searching instead for signs of the Higgs decaying into a pair of fundamental particles called "bottom quarks".
The fact that two different search methods are appearing to come up with similar answers further increases the probability that the Higgs is out there.Suggest a correction