Experts believe that some 80 percent of the universe could be made up of a mysterious substance called “dark matter.” Some even think that an entire group of particles has a “dark sectorthat could be as complex as the matter and antimatter families.
Unfortunately, the quest to finally observe dark matter collides with a wall. Easy said we need more particle accelerators. And whether they are built is seemingly entirely up to those in power in the European and American political arenas.
Money rules everything
The development of particle accelerators has been one of humanity most expensive scientific efforts. They didn’t produce much though practical Results.
Where the global scientific efforts of the atomic and nuclear science communities have weapons of destruction and nuclear power plants to show for their work, particle accelerators have seemingly presented more questions than answers since they’ve been in operation.
The most likely reason you don’t see people like Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai or the richest man in the world Elon Musk putting their corporate coffers on particle physics is because they are financial pits.
And because colliders are so expensive, the quest to reveal the universe’s hidden dark matter has largely been an attempt to… come up with a better theory.
But that all changed when the first results of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were finally known released in 2015two years after the first run was completed.
While not directly related to dark matter research, the data obtained from common particle collisions provided much inspiration to physicists in the field.
How’s that work?
The big idea involves particle collisions. How particles interact when they collide gives us a sense of how the big picture — the entire universe — works.
Imagine a billiard table set up to play a game of 8-ball, but with a twist: the balls are invisible and you can only touch them with your cue stick. As you played, you had to listen to the collisions between one ball and another to determine if you were achieving anything.
That’s essentially what scientists do when they use particle accelerators, only they use advanced sensor equipment to detect the super-high-speed collisions instead of the human ear. To measure particle interactions, scientists force them to interact in an environment they can control.
In the future, researchers hope to create bigger, better and more diverse accelerators capable of hitting particles together at higher speeds. They also want to build colliders for different types of particles, including muons and antimatter.
That’s where the excitement comes in for scientists pursuing the dark matter theory. One of the best explanations for why we haven’t been able to detect dark matter so far is that we’re not looking in the right places.
If dark matter is more than a single mysterious particle, but instead an entire sector of several dark particles, we exponentially increase our chances of observing dark matter interactions by diversifying the types of particles that scientists can collide with.
In other words, the best way to find dark matter is to keep observing particle collisions until we have enough data to fill in the currently missing pieces.
Whether or not these machines — whose price tags start in the billions — are made is entirely up to government funding.
CERN’s LHC cost $4.5 billion and was largely funded by European countries with the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy paying the majority of the bill.
In the US, a small group of physicists called the “Exercise Snowmas Community Planningis currently considering hundreds of proposals from the particle physics community to determine what recommendations it will make to the Department of Energy. The group’s determination could greatly influence how much investment the US government considers making in any new crash machines.
For example, despite the tremendous value the LHC has had to the scientific community, its usefulness is increasingly difficult to explain to the general public and there are currently few practical applications for the data it produces. It seems to be getting harder every year to ask EU member states or the US government to buy more colliders.
It’s not that scientists can’t show anything for the cost, the real problem is that solving the mystery of dark matter is just incredibly difficult.
Why is this so important?
It’s nearly impossible to put into perspective the importance of finally realizing (or rejecting) the theory of dark matter. Today, solving that particular puzzle would involve a slew of “Eureka!” headlines and in a few months the general public will have completely forgotten about it.
But about a hundred years after we discover the truth about dark matter, future generations will be able to trace almost all of their “modern” technology and scientific breakthroughs to when scientists discovered what made up the universe.
It’s not that dark matter itself is valuable (though, who knows, right?). The gist is that we currently have an incomplete model. If dark matter doesn’t exist, we need to discover much more of the universe than we already have. If it exists, and we are close to perceiving it, then we are about to have a basic understanding of how the universe works.
That’s a point of knowledge from where we can program simulations with complete confidence, build better quantum computers and systems, and get to work with technology that exploits the fully realized relationships between matter, antimatter and dark matter. In short, that’s when the magic really begins.
Whether that happens in the next 30 years or in the next 300 hundred may depend entirely on whether physicists can convince politicians to pump more money into these machines with no guarantee that they will actually find what they are looking for.
On the one hand there are so many others practical things we could put hundreds of billions of euros into.
But then again, what could be more important than solving the greatest mystery in the entire universe?
Further reading: Dear NASA, please put a particle accelerator on the moon