Finding Beauty in the Search for Dark Matter

Feature

Friday, May 10, 2013

Right now, one of the biggest races in science is the search for dark matter. “It's really very very scary to know that after all these years of civilization we still don't know 95% of our universe,” says experimental physicist Elena Aprile. “It makes you feel very small.” Aprile heads a research team at Columbia University trying to get one step closer to finding it.

Her detectors are stainless steel cylinders that are filled with liquid xenon gas cooled to about -150° F. When the working model is buried in a mile-deep chamber, she hopes to catch a glimpse of dark matter in that highly controlled environment. But the detectors are more than just equipment for Aprile; she’s passionate about their aesthetics, snapping photos of the detectors when the light hits just so.

“Maybe it's pretentious but it is a work of art. It is feeling so powerful in a sense, because it came all from your hands. I do feel sometime like a Michelangelo.” Her less romantic, less Italian colleagues compare the detectors’ profile to other shiny objects, like a robot, or a spaceship, or most unfortunately, a trash can.

Aprile’s concern with design may have to do with the fact that its functionality is not a given. Since scientists don't know what dark matter looks like, they can only guess at the best way to see it. “Unfortunately in this business we don't really know we are following the right path,” says Aprile. “Some time I get depressed, but there's no time to get depressed now. I don't think I will ever give up. Because there is no other way.”


Slideshow: Inside Elena Aprile’s Lab

Audrey Quinn

Experimental physicist Elena Aprile inside her lab at Columbia University’s Nevis Laboratories in Irvington, New York. 

Audrey Quinn

Aprile with one of her dark matter detector prototypes, made from stainless steel. 

Audrey Quinn

The prototypes are filled with liquid xenon gas cooled to about -150° F and attached to refrigerators and recording equipment.

Audrey Quinn

Aprile with her colleagues (left to right) Antonio Melgarejo, Ranny Budnik, and Marcello Messina.

Courtesy of the Xenon Dark Matter Project

Aprile (in red) with her team at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy's Abruzzi Mountains. The dark matter detector will be installed a mile beneath this mountain.

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Audrey Quinn

Comments [2]

neuron1 from Raleigh, NC

We live in a society where most indiviuals are so diconnected from rationality and disciplined thinking
that only words are left. The high priest of science have given up on connecting deep
complex ideas with the self-delutional masses and can only offer "cartoons" of reality.

Oct. 28 2013 09:50 PM
David from New Hyde Park, NY

I was distressed that there was no attempt to explain how dark matter would be detected. There is a mention of super cooled Xenon gas. Aprile refers to a dark matter particle", but there is no attempt to explain how all that equipment and effort will produce a result.

Please convince me that Studio 360 has not joined the ranks of the media who doubts the public's ability to understand science.

May. 19 2013 04:19 PM

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