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

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”