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Physicists have a grand theory that describes how tiny particles interact to form everything we see in the universe, from planets to people to toasters. But there's one particle predicted by this theory that has never been detected in experiments. It's called the Higgs boson. Scientists are dying to know if it really exists.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that researchers are closing in.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Earlier today, physicists crammed into an auditorium at CERN, the world's largest particle physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland. Someone wrote on Twitter: People would hang from the lamps if the security guards would let them.

At the front of the crowded room stood CERN's director-general, a white-haired physicist named Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

DR. ROLF-DIETER HEUER: We are here today to hear the latest research for the search for the Higgs boson, from the two big experiments from Atlas and from CMS.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He didn't have to tell this crowd that the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle first theorized to exist back in the mid-1960s. It's a key part of some beautiful mathematics that would explain a fundamental mystery: Why things have mass. If the Higgs exists, scientists should now be able to find it, using a brand new machine called the Large Hadron Collider.

The collider sends bits of atoms racing around a 17-mile circular track. They smash together and spew out subatomic rubble that scientists can study for signs of the Higgs.

It's esoteric stuff. The jargon came fast and furious as researchers showed off colorful PowerPoint slides packed with graphs and numbers and equations. The bottom-line: two different experiments saw some things that might be traces of the Higgs, or maybe not.

CERN's director described them as intriguing hints.

HEUER: But please be prudent. We have not found it yet. We have not excluded it yet. Stay tuned for next year. Thank you very much. Merry Christmas, et cetera.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This new data does narrow the search. Drew Baden is a physicist at the University of Maryland. He says they're running out of places where the Higgs could be hiding.

PROFESSOR DREW BADEN: Okay. So you know the old joke about how when you find something, it's always in the last place you look?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says in this case, though, it's no sure thing that the Higgs is there to find, so the suspense is growing. He compares it to looking for your favorite pair of socks. Imagine you rummage through your dresser and finally find them in the last possible drawer. That probably wouldn't surprise you. But what if your dresser had a hundred drawers?

BADEN: And you're looking for those socks and you've opened up 99 drawers, and you've got one left. But I mean, why would it, you know - is it just a fluke that it was in, you know, that you're going to find it in the last drawer? I mean, I'd be suspicious that it's not there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Baden says if the Higgs is not found in the next year or so, scientists may have to totally rethink their ideas about the inner workings of the universe.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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