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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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.