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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Chinese loan sharks are using nudes as collateral. Is this the grim future of revenge porn?

The economics of shame. 

When female students in Guangdong, a southern province in China, applied for a small loan, they were met with a very specific demand. Send naked photos of yourself holding your ID cards, they were told – or you won’t get the money. If you don’t pay up, we’ll make the photos public.

This is according to Nandu Daily, the area’s local newspaper, but has also been reported by the Associated Press and the Financial Times. The FT places the trend in the context of the Chinese economy, where peer to peer lending sites like Jiedaibao, the platform where the students allegedly contacted the lenders, are common. Thanks to the country’s slowing economy, the paper argues, lenders are increasingly intent on making sure they’ll be repaid.

As a result, there have also been reports of property destruction and even beatings by loan sharks. Part of the problem is that these are unregulated lenders who operate through an online platform. In this case, Jiedaibao says the agreement about photos was made via different communication channels, and told the FT: “This is an illegal offline trade between victims and lenders who did it by making use of the platform.” 

This new use of naked photos in this case, though, plays to the ways that shame is now used as a weapon, especially online – and the fact that it can essentially be monetised.

Revenge porn is a huge and growing problem. As Jon Ronson noted in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the internet offers a unique space in which shamings (over a naked photo, or an unwise comment) can be transmitted all over the world almost instantly. For some, this threat is simply too much to cope with, as it was for the growing number teenagers who have committed suicide after being blackmailed with naked photos

It’s telling, too, that the students targeted with these demands were, reportedly at least, women. Most victims of revenge porn are also women. The shame brought down on women who appear in these photos is not so much about their nakedness, but the implication that they've behaved in a sexual way. In China, virginity is still highly valued in marriage, and your family and friends would likely take the spread of naked photos of you extremely seriously. In Behind the Red Door, Sex in China , Richard Burger notes:

Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night.

The strange story of these students and their loans highlights two important points. First, as anti-loan shark campaigners have argued for decades, “free choice” in signing up to extortionate fees or demands when taking out a loan is a misnomer when you’re constrained by economic need and desperation.

But second, we can’t allow the shame around female sexuality to become a commodity. We need to both protect women's rights and persecute those who share images without consent, but also fight the stigma that makes these shamings possible in the first place. It's not acceptable that the suggestion of sexual activity can still be used to ruin women's lives.

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