Essay — From the May 2015 issue

The Quietest Place in the Universe

Digging for dark matter in an abandoned mine

Rick Gaitskell and I first met over lunch in Deadwood, South Dakota, back in the summer of 2012. An astrophysicist who had quit investment banking because he found the mathematics of finance too basic, Gaitskell had just emerged from an underground laboratory that was once among the nation’s richest gold mines. He was now sitting across from me and talking, quite literally, about everything in the universe.

He swooped in great conversational arcs from his English boyhood to the best method for extracting a single recorded voice from a babble of background noise, from the nature of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) to the shocked reactions from his Brown University students when they first hear his profane language in the classroom (“I don’t think it’s Tourette’s”). He described a computer program he had written for his cell phone, which allowed him to measure the g-forces exerted on the core of a dark-matter detector as the device was moved underground, since its wires were so hair-thin that the mildest acceleration might break them. He veered to the news that a few days earlier had held the scientific community spellbound: the Large Hadron Collider, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, had finally pried loose the Higgs boson — the “God particle,” so called because it gives other particles mass and therefore allows all the matter we see to be matter — and disclosed its irreducible splendor.

Composite photographs by Tatiana Gulenkina. The Open Cut at the Homestake Gold Mine, Lead, South Dakota, (Tatiana Gulenkina) and the Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

Composite photographs by Tatiana Gulenkina. The Open Cut at the Homestake Gold Mine, Lead, South Dakota, (Tatiana Gulenkina) and the Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

Physicists had theorized the Higgs boson fifty years ago, as the linchpin that would complete the Standard Model of elementary particles. As Gaitskell noted, the people who had devoted their careers to the Higgs were therefore older than the theory itself. Yet even as the scientific community was pooling the immense resources of money and technology that would allow it to free the Higgs, the Standard Model itself was fracturing under the tectonic pressure of new discoveries.

No wonder Gaitskell periodically leaned over the table and placed his hands on either side of his dark-haired head, as if he were trying to keep ideas from bursting through his skull. After all, the purpose of Gaitskell’s subterranean dark-matter detector was to find a missing fraction of the universe: perhaps one quarter of the entire cosmos. He was talking about a revolution in thought as great as the one that changed gravity from a straight-line force into a bend in a continuum and revealed time and space as siblings. It all evoked the end of the Ptolemaic system, repeatedly tweaked to save the appearances of planetary and stellar movements — until Copernicus’s Earth-decentering elegance could no longer be denied. Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.

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October 2019