How Do You Catch a Particle There’s No Way to See?

You can’t stop the signal. ~Serenity

Dark matter.

Supposedly, it’s the source of roughly 80% of the universe’s mass. And yet, we haven’t been able to detect any of it. Which makes a lot of scientists suspicious of the whole thing. But dark matter is the only way we can account for the mass necessary to describe the behavior of our universe.

So… where the fuck is it?

Physicists working with information gathered by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope may have an answer for us. Finally. Dan Hooper of the University of Chicago and Lisa Goodenough of NYU say they have seen signs of dark matter in an excess of energetic gamma rays emitted from the galaxy’s core.

While exciting, this is not entirely unexpected. Scientists have expected dark matter to be concentrated at the galactic core, making it the most promising place to search for the elusive stuff. However, that’s easier said than done. The center of the Milky Way is a clusterfuck of poorly understood (yet completely ordinary and not dark at all) sources of gamma radiation.

But Hooper and Goodenough have found a sharply rising gamma-ray signal in data from the innermost 570 lightyears of the galaxy, a signal that peaked at energies between 2 and 4 billion electron volts (roughly a billion times the energy of visible light). And the data, due to location and sheer immensity of energy, can’t quite be explained by your everyday sources of gamma radiation, like pulsars.

“This is the most confident I have ever been that something we were seeing in an experiment was a signal of dark matter,” said Hooper.

Adding to the data is the fact that the proposed mass of Hooper and Goodenough’s dark matter particles is consistent with findings from two of our Earth-bound dark matter detection experiments (COGENT and DAMA). On the subject of this apparent match, Hooper said, “You should have seen the look on my face when those numbers came out of my computer code. I thought, ‘No one is going to believe this.’… Either this is something or this is a remarkable coincidence. And I think this is something.”

Of course, the burden of proof is remarkably high in a case like this, where we are basically introducing new aspects to the realm of physics (i.e. actual dark matter). Scientists are going to be hard at work for quite some time, working out some uncertainties surrounding ordinary gamma-ray sources in the galactic center and verifying Hooper and Goodenough’s data.

Still, it feels like the closest we’ve come to solving part of the mystery of dark matter. Which is terribly exciting.

That is, unless you believe Jeffrey Rowland’s idea of what dark matter really is, because then you’ll just be waiting for this experiment to be proven a pitiful failure.

***

As an aside, I’ve been listening to a recorded (but never animated) “lost” episode of Invader ZIM entitled “Mopiness of Doom” the whole time I was writing this. Weirdly enough, it worked well with the whole science post.

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