Egos and intensity in the search for dark matter

Voices in the dark.

In the next few weeks, the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector will begin its operations under Italy’s Gran Sasso mountain. This seems a good time to point out that it is sharing the mountain with a detector that may already have found some. What a shame, then, that what might one day be viewed as a historic result has been mired in petty name-calling.

We’ve been looking for dark matter since 1933, when the astronomer Fritz Zwicky pointed out that clusters of galaxies move in ways that seemingly defy the laws of physics. The movement made sense only if the clusters were experiencing a gravitational pull from some invisible stuff nearby.

For various reasons, mostly to do with other astronomers not liking Zwicky very much, we’ve been searching for dark matter seriously only since the 1970s. During those four decades, there has been a series of pronouncements about its discovery being only a decade away. It might now be time to take those pronouncements a little more seriously: lately, the sensitivity of detectors has been improving tenfold every two years. We must surely be on the verge of finally nailing down the existence of dark matter. If we haven’t already, that is.

Dark matter doesn’t just hold gravity clusters together – it’s everywhere. It’s right here on earth, for instance: billions of dark matter particles fly through your body every second. You won’t feel them and they won’t harm you. They don’t interact much with the stuff of our everyday reality, which is what has made them so hard to detect.

While we don’t have any concrete detections of single particles, we do seem to have a discernible signal from passing through clouds of dark matter. It was first spotted by the DAMA dark matter detector, which is based, like the new DarkSide-50 detector, deep under the mountains at Gran Sasso. The rock covering them protects the instruments from distracting sources of noise.

In 2008, DAMA’s operators announced that they had identified a signal that rose and faded with the seasons. It might have been ignored, except that this is exactly what Katherine Freese predicted for a dark matter signal in 1986. She said that the intensity of dark matter detections should depend on the time of year, because as the earth whirls round the sun and the sun moves through the Milky Way, the amount of dark matter hitting the detectors will ebb and flow. It’s rather like the difference between walking into wind-driven rain, then turning and walking the other way. In June, dark matter hits Planet Earth full in the face; in December, it’s at our back.

So, it was pretty exciting that DAMA’s detector saw this predicted pattern. It was even more exciting when another detector, CoGeNT, based in a deep underground mine in Minnesota, also saw it. It’s a shame that a third detector, Xenon, didn’t.

Xenon is also in the Gran Sasso mine and there is no love lost between the leaders of these two research efforts. CoGeNT’s Juan Collar has called Xenon’s science “pure, weapons-grade balonium”. Not content with antagonising his peers, Collar has also accused the DAMA project of “cheapening the level of our discourse to truly imbecilic levels”.

Finding dark matter is proving to be astonishingly difficult and everyone knows there’s a Nobel prize at stake, so it’s not surprising that the claws are out.

Anyway, welcome to the fray, DarkSide-50; there is definitely room for more players in this competition. Whether there is room for more egos, however, is another matter.

Inside the DarkSide-50 experiment.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

0800 7318496