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Science experiments like PICASSO and DEAP-3600 are trying to resolve one of the universe’s biggest scientific mysteries
The hottest thing in science today is cold. It’s also invisible, though it still manages to be heavy.
Dark matter — the mysterious stuff that physicists believe makes up a quarter of the universe but which no one has been able to directly detect — is having what the style world would call “a moment.” At this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, the Fashion Week of science, dark matter talks were the Marc Jacobs fall collection: devotees crammed themselves into darkened rooms to get a glimpse of the Next Big Thing.
“I’ve been saying for a couple years now that the 2010s will be the dark matter decade,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. With the discovery last summer of what is almost certainly the Higgs Boson, dark matter is the next big mystery in physics — and experiments designed to detect it are just beginning to show fruit.
Some of the most exciting are sitting in a mine shaft two kilometres below Sudbury, Ont.
By 2014, the SNOLAB underground laboratory will have five different experiments searching for what physicists believe dark matter is made of: WIMPs, or Weakly Interacting Massive Particles.
“Either we’re right or we’re wrong, but either way we’ll know because the experiments have enough sensitivity,” says Tony Noble, a SNOLAB scientist and physics professor at Queen’s University.
There are also dark-matter-hunting projects underway inside Italian mountain ranges, at the South Pole, and on the International Space Station. Many physicists are optimistic that these will confirm our theories of dark matter within the next couple years — or show they are wrong, which would be even more interesting.
“We’re hopeful that we’re close — and it’s just a hope, I don’t want to get to out of control here — but we’re hopeful that we’re close to directly detecting it,” says Carroll.
The first theories of dark matter came in the 1930s from Fritz Zwicky, an oddball Swiss-born astronomer. Zwicky convinced Caltech, where he worked, to build a telescope that let him measure the velocity of galaxies in a distant region called the Coma Cluster. He used the velocity to figure out the galaxies’ mass and discovered they were much more massive than they should be based on the stars visible inside them, the matter emitting light. There had to be more mass somewhere — “dark matter.”
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