By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, April 3, 2013 - 0 Comments
New research on one of science’s enduring mysteries
The first results from a particle physics detector aboard the International Space Station are in—and show tantalizing hints of dark matter, a mysterious substance that binds the galaxies together.
New research from the $2-billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), revealed today by Nobel laureate Samuel Ting, confirm an excess of positrons (the antimatter counterpart to an electron) that could very well be a sign of dark matter particles annihilating each other in space. Then again, maybe these signals are just some cosmic debris, although scientists are cautiously excited.
“Over the coming months, AMS will be able to tell us conclusively whether these positrons are a signal for dark matter, or whether they have some other origin,” Ting said in a statement.
Since it launched to the Space Station in 2011, the AMS has recorded about 25 billion cosmic ray signals, including the largest collection of energetic antimatter particles ever measured from space. Scientists predict that collisions of dark matter particles produce positrons and electrons, which is why the ratio of these tiny particles is so interesting to dark matter hunters, Ting included. But we still don’t know for sure if the positrons AMS has found are from dark matter, or something more mundane, like pulsars. What the AMS has found “is an indication, but by no means is it a proof” of dark matter, Ting told New Scientist earlier today from a seminar at CERN, near Geneva, from where he presented his results.
Still, an indication is exciting enough. Ting’s results had been hotly anticipated for months, and in February he teased reporters with a promise that news was coming soon. “The Cosmos is the ultimate lab,” he said then. While scientists on the ground continue the hunt for dark matter—at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, for example, and at SNOLAB, deep underground in Sudbury, Ont.—this massive orbital experiment, which continues until the Space Station is decommissioned in 2020, looks to be quickly closing in on one of the enduring mysteries of science. Dark matter makes up about a quarter of our universe, yet we know almost nothing about it; many predict we’ll have found dark matter within the next ten years. Maybe sooner.
By Kate Lunau - Monday, February 18, 2013 at 12:45 PM - 0 Comments
Kate Lunau’s latest from the AAAS Meeting, on the mysterious stuff that makes up 25 per cent of our universe
Kate Lunau is in Boston covering the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where some of the world’s finest brains and celebrities of science meet to mix, mingle, and share their latest and greatest ideas. On Feb. 14-18, she’ll give you a sneak peak into the current research—everything from dinosaurs to neutrinos, from stem cells to extreme weather, and all sorts of sorts of stuff in between. Follow her on Twitter: @katelunau, #AAASmtg
The International Space Station isn’t just home to astronauts like Canadian Chris Hadfield, who’ll assume command in a few weeks’ time. It’s also an orbiting laboratory: hundreds of experiments are done there, looking into everything from human health to colloids. The ISS holds a $2-billion particle physics detector, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is searching for signs of exotic stuff that makes up our universe, like dark matter. Big news might be coming soon. At the AAAS Meeting, Nobel laureate and AMS principal investigator Dr. Samuel Ting promised that the first results from the AMS detector should be published in two or three weeks’ time. “It will not be a minor paper,” he told a crowded room of reporters.
By Katie Engelhart - Monday, July 9, 2012 at 10:55 AM - 0 Comments
Hundreds of people, physics lovers and those that don’t know the difference between an electron and proton alike, are making the pilgrimage to Geneva
ON A RECENT MORNING at the airport in Geneva, a middle-aged North American man boards the bus that will take me to my hotel. “CERN. This goes to CERN?” The bus driver stares blankly. “CERN?” And shrugs. Not this bus.
A day after the long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson was announced at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), pilgrimages to the ‘50s-era research site have already begun.
Later that morning, CERN’s main lobby swims with tourists. Visitors leaf through glossy brochures and browse a small gift shop, which sells slim volumes on particle physics and construction industry hard hats bearing the CERN logo.
In a few moments, my tour group gathers.
We are first ushered into a dark theatre to watch an introductory film. Those of us who have travelled to Geneva to bear witness to Higgs mania are quickly disappointed. The film was made in 2004 and is woefully outdated. Over ominous music and landscape shots of CERN’s sprawling research complex, a narrator speaks of an as-yet-to-be-discovered Higgs boson.
When the lights are switched on, Mohammed, our lanky tour guide, arrives to fetch us. He is dressed like many of CERN’s top researchers: in sneakers and a pastel blue t-shirt.
Onward, to the headquarters of ATLAS: one of the experiments that detected the boson. En route, two girls pause to take photos. Paean Sozoryoku, a 21-year-old physics student from Melbourne, has dragged her friend to Geneva’s outskirts to see the site: “to be inquisitive.” Her blue sundress flapping around her, she points—most inquisitively—to some equipment in the distance.
Her friend, who does not study physics, is less enthralled. Paean has had trouble explaining some basic concepts to her: “like, how do we know [the boson] exists if we can’t see it?”
Inside the main doors, we are separated from ATLAS’s “control room” by a single glass panel. We press our noses to the surface to watch a dozen or so graduate students at work. Computer screens flash lines of code and graphs. It is just as we imagined.
Breaking the silence, Edgar Valdez, a sturdily built American with a neatly shaved head, makes note of the building’s shabby facade. A philosophy teacher at Seton Hall University, Valdez is interested in the philosophy of science and math. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t philosophize about Higgs bosons; but he reads up about particle physics—when he is not busy teaching undergraduate classes on Locke, Hume and the like.
Next is a 3D video that chronicles, in excruciating detail, the difficulty of moving heavy machinery around the research site. And then a video game, which lets us take turns playing the role of a Large Hydron Collider (LHC) sensor.
Erik Hoogendorp, a 43-year-old artist from the Netherlands, doesn’t play along. He is too busy pressing Mohammed for more detailed information on “Z particles.” Tall and wearing the required uniform of the Euro artiste—plaid shirt and skinny jeans—Erik has travelled to Geneva to meet with a CERN physicist, with whom he hopes to collaborate on a physics-inspired art project. I peer at Erik’s iPhone, as he flips through images of his work: dotted representations of a tree, a sock. Erik says he wants his work to address “dark matter and the exotic stuff that touches the fantasy.”
On the way out, I bump into Caroline Walsh, an Irish woman who has just left a museum exhibit on the “History of the Universe.” A chemist, Caroline came to central Geneva for a UN conference on “the globally harmonized system of classification and labeling of chemicals.” She didn’t stick around.
“I skipped out of the UN early,” she whispers, with hyperbolic furtiveness. “Don’t tell my boss!”
Back in the lobby, the tourists disperse. Lazing about out on the couches, awaiting the next tour, is a high school physics group from King Edwards School in England. Henry Matthews, 17, tells me he plans to pursue “particle physics and cosmology” at university, and wants to be the scientist who discovers dark matter. If all that doesn’t work out, Henry hopes to become a music technician. (He sings backup and plays drums and guitar.) I ask him if he will write songs about dark matter. He looks bored; “I’ll write dark music.”
At reception, Marc, a calm Frenchman in charge of the information desk, confirms a spike in tourists following Wednesday’s big announcement. Weekend tours of CERN, he says, are now booked solid until early September.
But it’s not just the quantity of tourists that has changed, Marc adds. “There are tourists here now who… otherwise would not be here. In French, we would call them Monsieur et Madame tout le monde.”
With a curt nod, I rejoin the ranks of the Higgs-hunting Joe Shmoes.
By Kate Lunau - Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 10:28 AM - 0 Comments
Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher have announced the discovery of a brand-new…
Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher have announced the discovery of a brand-new particle—and it looks an awful lot like the long-sought Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle,” without which the universe as we know it wouldn’t exist.
“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” Rolf Heuer, director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), told a crowd of scientists, to cheers and a standing ovation. The existence of this particle was confirmed in two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider—a massive underground particle accelerator that spans the border of France and Switzerland—and there’s less than a one-in-a-million chance that the data is a fluke. Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh-based physicist who theorized the existence of the Higgs boson, was there as the announcement was made, and wiped away a tear. The 83-year-old told the crowd: “It is an incredible thing that has happened in my lifetime.”
Higgs and other theorists first proposed the existence of the Higgs boson more than half a century ago to explain a mystery: Why do most elementary particles have mass? Without mass, as CERN notes, there would be no atoms; no chemistry; no biology—and certainly none of us. But the concept of mass has long been a sticking point in the Standard Model, which describes all known elementary particles, and how they interact.
To help explain it, physicists came up with the Higgs mechanism: an invisible field that stretches across space and gives mass to these particles. The Higgs boson particle is a manifestation of this, but of all the particles predicted by the Standard Model, it was the only one that hadn’t been observed. To search for the Higgs boson, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider—called the world’s biggest science experiment—smashed protons together, recreating conditions that existed just after the Big Bang, when Higgs boson particles were theorized to exist.
This new particle looks startlingly like the Higgs boson—but what if it’s something even more strange and exotic? After all, just a measly four per cent of the entire universe is made up of matter we can see. The remaining 96 per cent is believed to be dark matter and dark energy, which we still know almost nothing about. As scientists learn more about this new subatomic particle—whether it’s a Higgs boson or something previously unimagined—it will open a new door on our understanding of the universe.
By Kate Lunau - Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 3:30 PM - 0 Comments
Book by Richard Panek
It’s remarkable enough that our bodies, our planet, and even the stars in the sky are made up of the same sorts of matter. What’s even more mind-bending, though, is that only four per cent of the entire universe consists of stuff we know—the other 96 per cent is a complete mystery. “Get rid of us and of everything else we’ve ever thought of as the universe,” Panek writes, “and very little would change.”
The vast majority of the universe is made up of so-called “dark” matter, which accounts for about 23 per cent of it, and “dark” energy, an even weirder something or other that makes up the other 73 per cent. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, on-the-scene reporting and emails between collaborators, Panek charts 50 years’ worth of efforts to answer one of the biggest questions in the history of science: what is the universe made of?
An experienced science writer, Panek has his work cut out for him, because this isn’t an easy story to tell. The writing can get a little technical, but even those without a science background will be able to grasp his meaning. Panek’s enthusiasm for the topic, and the colourful scientists and researchers who populate this book—men and women who aren’t above indulging in a good jealous rivalry or two—add juice to the narrative when it threatens to get a little bit dry.
If 96 per cent of everything is made up of stuff we don’t understand, it’s easy to feel irrelevant: “We’re just a bit of pollution,” one theorist says. But Panek dishes out his insights so cheerfully, and with so much optimism, that it’s impossible not to get excited by how much we’ve yet to learn.