Questionable Motives

December 25, 2009

Evidence for dark matter… in Minnesota?

Filed under: Astronomy,Discovery,Physics,Science — tildeb @ 4:09 pm

Laurence Krauss is one of my favourite science writers because his writings are accurate, fascinating, and accessible. Read his entire article here.

In early December, the Cold Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment located in the deep Soudan Mine in northern Minnesota leaked a tantalizing hint that they may have discovered something remarkable. The experiment is designed to directly detect new elementary particles that might make up the dark matter known to dominate our own Milky Way galaxy, all galaxies, and indeed all mass in the universe—so news of a possible breakthrough was thrilling.

The actual result? Two pulses were detected over the course of almost a year that might have been due to dark matter, CDMS announced on Dec. 17. However, there is a 25% chance that the pulses were actually caused by background radioactivity in and around the detector.

So when the physics community heard rumors that one of these experiments had detected something, we all waited with eager anticipation. A convincing observation would vindicate almost half a century of carefully developed, if fragile, arguments suggesting a whole new invisible world waiting to be discovered.

For the theorist working at his desk alone at night, it seems almost unfathomable that nature might actually obey the delicate theories you develop on pieces of paper. This is especially true when the theories involve ideas from so many different areas of science and require leaps of imagination.

The reported results are intriguing, but less than convincing. Yet if the two pulses observed last week in Minnesota are followed by more signals as bigger detectors turn on in the coming year or two, it will provide serious vindication of the power of human imagination. Combined with rigorous logical inference and technological wizardry—all the things that make science worth celebrating—scientists’ creativity will have uncovered hidden worlds that a century ago could not have been conceived.

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