Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

The New Hunt for Dark Matter Is Taking Place Under a Mountain

Davide D’Angelo wasn’t always interested in dark matter, but now he’s at the forefront of the hunt to find the most elusive particle in the universe.

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Aug 30 2018, 3:33pm

Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

THE MOST UNKNOWN is Motherboard's love letter to the scientific process. For the next nine weeks, we'll be profiling the people trying to answer science's most difficult questions. Our feature-length documentary is now available on Netflix, and bonus episodes are available on YouTube.


About an hour outside of Rome there’s a dense cluster of mountains known as the Gran Sasso d’Italia. Renowned for their natural beauty, the Gran Sasso are a popular tourist destination year round, offering world-class skiing in the winter and plenty of hiking and swimming opportunities in the summer. For the 43-year old Italian physicist Davide D’Angelo, these mountains are like a second home. Unlike most people who visit Gran Sasso, however, D’Angelo spends more time under the mountains than on top of them.

It's here, in a cavernous hall thousands of feet beneath the earth, that D’Angleo works on a new generation of experiments dedicated to the hunt for dark matter particles, an exotic form of matter whose existence has been hypothesized for decades but never proven experimentally.

Dark matter is thought to make up about 27 percent of the universe and characterizing this elusive substance is one of the most profound problems in contemporary physics. Although D'Angelo is optimistic that a breakthrough will occur in his lifetime, so was the last generation of physicists. In fact, there's a decent chance that the particles D'Angelo is looking for don't exist at all. Yet for physicists probing the fundamental nature of the universe, the possibility that they might spend their entire career "hunting ghosts," as D'Angelo put it, is the price of advancing science.

WHAT'S UNDER THE 'GREAT STONE'?

In 1989, Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics opened the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, the world’s largest underground laboratory dedicated to astrophysics. Gran Sasso’s three cavernous halls were purposely built for physics, which is something of a luxury as far as research centers go. Most other underground astrophysics laboratories like SNOLAB are ad hoc facilities that repurpose old or active mine shafts, which limits the amount of time that can be spent in the lab and the types of equipment that can be used.

Buried nearly a mile underground to protect it from the noisy cosmic rays that bathe the Earth, Gran Sasso is home to a number of particle physics experiments that are probing the foundations of the universe. For the last few years, D’Angelo has divided his time between the Borexino observatory and the Sodium Iodide with Active Background Rejection Experiment (SABRE), which are investigating solar neutrinos and dark matter, respectively.

Davide D'Angelo with the SABRE proof of concept. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

Over the last 100 years, characterizing solar neutrinos and dark matter was considered to be one of the most important tasks of particle physics. Today, the mystery of solar neutrinos is resolved, but the particles are still of great interest to physicists for the insight they provide into the fusion process occurring in our Sun and other stars. The composition of dark matter, however, is still considered to be one of the biggest questions in particle physics. Despite the radically different nature of the particles, they are united insofar as they both can only be discovered in environments where the background radiation is at a minimum: Thousands of feet beneath the Earth’s surface.

“The mountain acts as a shield so if you go below it, you have so-called ‘cosmic silence,’” D’Angelo said. “That’s the part of my research I like most: Going into the cave, putting my hands on the detector and trying to understand the signals I’m seeing.”

After finishing grad school, D’Angelo got a job with Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics where his research focused on solar neutrinos, a subatomic particle with no charge that is produced by fusion in the Sun. For the better part of four decades, solar neutrinos were at the heart of one of the largest mysteries in astrophysics. The problem was that instruments measuring the energy from solar neutrinos returned results much lower than predicted by the Standard Model, the most accurate theory of fundamental particles in physics.

Given how accurate the Standard Model had proven to be for other aspects of cosmology, physicists were reluctant to make alterations to it to account for the discrepancy. One possible explanation was that physicists had faulty models of the Sun and better measurements of its core pressure and temperature were needed. Yet after a string of observations in the 60s and 70s demonstrated that the models of the sun were essentially correct, physicists sought alternative explanations by turning to the neutrino.

A TALE OF THREE NEUTRINOS

Ever since they were first proposed by the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli in 1930, neutrinos have been called upon to patch holes in theories. In Pauli’s case, he first posited the existence of an extremely light, chargeless particle as a “desperate remedy” to explain why the law of the conservation of energy appeared to be violated during radioactive decay. Three years later, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi gave these hypothetical particles a name. He called them “neutrinos,” Italian for “little neutrons.”

A quarter of a century after Pauli posited their existence, two American physicists reported the first evidence of neutrinos produced in a fission reactor. The following year, in 1957, Bruno Pontecorvo, an Italian physicist working in the Soviet Union, developed a theory of neutrino oscillations. At the time, little was known about the properties of neutrinos and Pontecorvo suggested that there might be more than one type of neutrino. If this were the case, Pontecorvo theorized that it could be possible for the neutrinos to switch between types.

By 1975, part of Pontecorvo’s theory had been proven correct. Three different types, or “flavors,” of neutrino had been discovered: electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos, and tau neutrinos. Importantly, observations from an experiment in a South Dakota mineshaft had confirmed that the Sun produced electron neutrinos. The only issue was that the experiment detected far fewer neutrinos than the Standard Model predicted.

Prior to the late 90s, there was scant indirect evidence that neutrinos could change from one flavor to another. In 1998, a group of researchers working in Japan’s Super-Kamiokande Observatory observed oscillations in atmospheric neutrinos, which are mostly produced by the interactions between photons and the Earth’s atmosphere. Three years later, Canada’s Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) provided the first direct evidence of oscillations from solar neutrinos.

This was, to put it lightly, a big deal in cosmological physics. It effectively resolved the mystery of the missing solar neutrinos, or why experiments only observed about a third as many neutrinos radiating from the Sun compared to predictions made by the Standard Model. If neutrinos could oscillate between flavors, this means a neutrino that is emitted in the Sun’s core could be a different type of neutrino by the time it reaches Earth. Prior to the mid-80s, most experiments on Earth were only looking for electron neutrinos, which meant they were missing the other two flavors of neutrinos that were created en route from the Sun to the Earth.

When SNO was dreamt up in the 80s, it was designed so that it would be capable of detecting all three types of neutrinos, instead of just electron neutrinos. This decision paid off. In 2015, the directors of the experiments at Super-Kamiokande and SNO shared the Nobel Prize in physics for resolving the mystery of the missing solar neutrinos.

The Borexino detector. Image: LNFN

Although the mystery of solar neutrinos has been solved, there’s still plenty of science to be done to better understand them. Since 2007, Gran Sasso’s Borexino observatory has been refining the measurements of solar neutrino flux, which has given physicists unprecedented insight into the fusion process powering the Sun. From the outside, the Borexino observatory looks like a large metal sphere, but on the inside it looks like a technology transplanted from an alien world.

In the center of the sphere is basically a large, transparent nylon sack that is almost 30 feet in diameter and only half a millimeter thick. This sack contains a liquid scintillator, a chemical mixture that releases energy when a neutrino passes through it. This nylon sphere is suspended in 1,000 metric tons of a purified buffer liquid and surrounded by 2,200 sensors to detect energy released by electrons that are freed when neutrinos interact with the liquid scintillator. Finally, an outer buffer of nearly 3,000 tons of ultrapure water helps provide additional shielding for the detector. Taken together, the Borexino observatory has the most protection from outside radiation interference of any liquid scintillator in the world.

For the last decade, physicists at Borexino—including D’Angelo, who joined the project in 2011—have been using this one-of-a-kind device to observe low energy solar neutrinos produced by proton collisions during the fusion process in the Sun’s core. Given how difficult it is to detect these chargless, ultralight particles that hardly ever interact with matter, detecting the low energy solar neutrinos would be virtually impossible without such a sensitive machine. When SNO directly detected the first solar neutrino oscillations, for instance, it could only observe the highest energy solar neutrinos due to interference from background radiation. This amounted to only about 0.01 percent of all the neutrinos emitted by the Sun. Borexino’s sensitivity allows it to observe solar neutrinos whose energy is a full order of magnitude lower than those detected by SNO, opening the door for an incredibly refined model of solar processes as well as more exotic events like supernovae.

“It took physicists 40 years to understand solar neutrinos and it’s been one of the most interesting puzzles in particle physics,” D’Angelo told me. “It’s kind of like how dark matter is now.”

SHINING A LIGHT ON DARK MATTER

If neutrinos were the mystery particle of the twentieth century, then dark matter is the particle conundrum for the new millenium. Just like Pauli proposed neutrinos as a “desperate remedy” to explain why experiments seemed to be violating one of the most fundamental laws of nature, the existence of dark matter particles is inferred because cosmological observations just don’t add up.

In the early 1930s, the American astronomer Fritz Zwicky was studying the movement of a handful of galaxies in the Coma cluster, a collection of over 1,000 galaxies approximately 320 million light years from Earth. Using data published by Edwin Hubble, Zwicky calculated the mass of the entire Coma galaxy cluster. When he did, Zwicky noticed something odd about the velocity dispersion—the statistical distribribution of the speeds of a group of objects—of the galaxies: The velocity distribution was about 12 times higher than it should be based on the amount of matter in the galaxies.

Inside Gran Sasso. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

This was a surprising calculation and its significance wasn’t lost on Zwicky. “If this would be confirmed,” he wrote, “we would get the surprising result that dark matter is present in much greater amount than luminous matter.”

The idea that the universe was made up mostly of invisible matter was a radical idea in Zwicky’s time and still is today. The main difference, however, is that astronomers now have much stronger empirical evidence pointing to its existence. This is mostly due to the American astronomer Vera Rubin, whose measurement of galactic rotations in the 1960s and 70s put the existence of dark matter beyond a doubt. In fact, based on Rubin’s measurements and subsequent observations, physicists now think dark matter makes up about 27 percent of the “stuff” in the universe, about seven times more than the regular, baryonic matter we’re all familiar with. The burning question, then, is what is it made of?

“Of course I am afraid that there might not be any dark matter there and we are hunting ghosts."

Since Rubin’s pioneering observations, a number of dark matter candidate particles have been proposed, but so far all of them have eluded detection by some of the world’s most sensitive instruments. Part of the reason for this is that physicists aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for. In fact, a small minority of physicists think dark matter might not be a particle at all and is just an exotic gravitational effect. This makes designing dark matter experiments kind of like finding a car key in a stadium parking lot and trying to track down the vehicle it pairs with. There’s a pretty good chance the car is somewhere in the parking lot, but you’re going to have to try a lot of doors before you find your ride—if it even exists.

Among the candidates for dark matter are subatomic particles with goofy names like axions, gravitinos, Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs), and Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WMIPs.) D’Angelo and his colleagues at Gran Sasso have placed their bets on WIMPs, which until recently were considered to be the leading particle candidate for dark matter.

Over the last few years, however, physicists have started to look at other possibilities after some critical tests failed to confirm the existence of WIMPs. WIMPs are a class of hypothetical elementary particles that hardly ever interact with regular baryonic matter and don’t emit light, which makes them exceedingly hard to detect. This problem is compounded by the fact that no one is really sure how to characterize a WIMP. Needless to say, it’s hard to find something if you’re not even really sure what you’re looking for.

So why would physicists think WIMPs exist at all? In the 1970s, physicists conceptualized the Standard Model of particle physics, which posited that everything in the universe was made out of a handful of fundamental particles. The Standard Model works great at explaining almost everything the universe throws at it, but it’s still incomplete since it doesn’t incorporate gravity into the model. In the 1980s, an extension of the Standard Model called Supersymmetry emerged, which hypothesizes that each fundamental particle in the Standard Model has a partner. These particle pairs are known as supersymmetric particles and are used as the theoretical explanation for a number of mysteries in Standard Model physics, such as the mass of the Higgs boson and the existence of dark matter. Some of the most complex and expensive experiments in the world like the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator were created in an effort to discover these supersymmetric particles, but so far there’s been no experimental evidence that these particles actually exist.

Read More: Inside SNOLAB, the Dark Matter Lab Buried One Mile Underground

Many of the lightest particles theorized in the supersymmetric model are WIMPs and go by names like the gravitino, sneutrino and neutralino. The latter is still considered to be the leading candidate for dark matter by many physicists and is thought to have formed in abundance in the early universe. Detecting evidence of this ancient theoretical particle is the goal of many dark matter experiments, including the one D’Angelo works on at Gran Sasso.

D’Angelo told me he became interested in dark matter a few years after joining the Gran Sasso laboratory and began contributing to the laboratory’s DarkSide experiment, which seemed like a natural extension of his work on solar neutrinos. DarkSide is essentially a large tank filled with liquid argon and equipped with incredibly sensitive sensors. If WIMPs exist, physicists expect to detect them from the ionization produced through their collision with the argon nuclei.

The DarkSide experiment has been running at Gran Sasso since 2013 and D’Angelo said it is expected to continue for several more years. These days, however, he’s found himself involved with a different dark matter experiment at Gran Sasso called SABRE, which will also look for direct evidence of dark matter particles based on the light produced when energy is released through their collision with Sodium-Iodide crystals.

The set up of the SABRE experiment is deliberately similar to another experiment that has been running at Gran Sasso since 1995 called DAMA. In 2003, the DAMA experiment began looking for seasonal fluctuations in dark matter particles that was predicted in the 1980s as a consequence of the relative motion of the sun and Earth to the rest of the galaxy. The theory posited that the relative speed of any dark matter particles detected on Earth should peak in June and bottom out in December.

Davide D'Angelo. Image: Xavier Aaronson/Motherboard

Over the course of nearly 15 years, DAMA did in fact register seasonal fluctuations in its detectors that were in accordance with this theory and the expected signature of a dark matter particle. In short, it seemed as if DAMA was the first experiment in the world to detect a dark matter particle. The problem, however, was that DAMA couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that the signature it had detected was in fact due to some other seasonal variation on Earth, rather than the ebb and flow of dark matter as the Earth revolved around the Sun.

SABRE aims to remove the ambiguities in DAMA’s data. After all the kinks are worked out in the testing equipment, the Gran Sasso experiment will become one half of SABRE. The other half will be located in Australia in a converted gold mine. By having a laboratory in the northern hemisphere and another in the southern hemisphere, this should help eliminate any false positives that result from normal seasonal fluctuations. At the moment, the SABRE detector is still in a proof of principle phase and is expected to begin observations in both hemispheres within the next few years.

When it comes to SABRE, it’s possible that the experiment may disprove the best evidence physicists have found so far for a dark matter particle. But as D’Angelo pointed out, this type of disappointment is a fundamental part of science.

“Of course I am afraid that there might not be any dark matter there and we are hunting ghosts, but science is like this,” D’Angelo said. “Sometimes you spend several years looking for something and in the end it’s not there so you have to change the way you were thinking about things.”

For D’Angelo, probing the subatomic world with neutrino and dark matter research from a cave in Italy is his way of connecting to the universe writ large.

“The tiniest elements of nature are bonded to the most macroscopic phenomena, like the expansion of the universe,” D’Angelo said. “The infinitely small touches the infinitely big in this sense, and I find that fascinating. The physics I do, it’s goal is to push over the boundary of human knowledge.”