Experts believe that around 80 percent of the universe may consist of a mysterious substance called “dark matter”. Some even believe that there is an entire group of particles that form a “dark sector” that may be as complex as matter and antimatter families.
Unfortunately, the quest to finally observe dark matter hits a wall. Simply put, we need more particle colliders. And whether they are built is apparently entirely up to the powers that be in the European and American political arena.
Cash rules everything
The development of particle colliders has been one of humanity’s most expensive scientific endeavors. However, they haven’t produced much in the way of practical results.
Where the global scientific efforts of the nuclear and nuclear science communities have weapons of destruction and nuclear power plants to show for their work, particle colliders have apparently presented more questions than answers since they have been in operation.
The most likely reason you don’t see people like Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai or the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, committing their company’s coffers to the field of particle physics is because they are financial sinkholes.
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 changed when the first results from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were finally released in 2015, two years after the first run was completed.
Although not directly related to dark matter research, the data obtained from general particle collisions provided much inspiration for physicists in the field.
How does it work?
The big idea involves particle collisions. How particles interact when they collide gives us an idea of how the big picture – the entire universe – works.
Imagine a pool table set up to play a game of 8-ball, but with a twist: the balls are invisible and you’re not allowed to touch them with anything but your cue stick. As you played, you had to listen for the collisions between one ball and another to determine if you achieved anything.
That’s essentially what scientists do when they use particle colliders, only they use advanced sensor equipment to detect the collisions at super-high speeds instead of the human ear. To measure particle interactions, researchers force them to interact in an environment they can control.
Going forward, researchers hope to create bigger, better and more diverse colliders capable of smashing particles together at higher speeds. They also want to build colliders for different types of particles, including muons and antimatter.
This is where the excitement comes in for researchers pursuing the theory of dark matter. One of the best explanations for why we haven’t been able to observe dark matter so far is because we’re not looking in all the right places.
If dark matter is more than just a single mysterious particle, but instead an entire sector of different dark particles, we will exponentially increase our chances of observing dark matter interactions by diversifying the kinds of particles scientists are able to collide.
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 missing pieces.
Whether or not these machines – whose price tags start in the billions – get made is entirely up to government funding.
CERN’s LHC cost $4.5 billion and was mostly funded by European countries with the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy footing the bulk of the bill.
In the US, a small group of physicists called the “Snowmass Community Planning Exercise” is reviewing hundreds of proposals from the particle physics community to decide what recommendations it will make to the Department of Energy. The group’s decisions could greatly influence how much investment the U.S. government considers making toward new colliders, if any.
Despite the enormous value the LHC, for example, has had for the scientific community, its usefulness is increasingly difficult to explain to the general public, and there is currently little in the way of practical applications for the data it produces. Asking EU member states or the US government to pay for more colliders seems to be a tougher sell with each passing year.
It’s not that scientists have nothing to show for the cost, the real problem is that solving the mystery of dark matter is simply very difficult.
Why is this so important?
It is almost impossible to put the importance of finally realizing (or rejecting) the theory of dark matter into perspective. Today, solving that particular puzzle would come with a series of “Eureka!” headlines, and in a few months the general public will have forgotten all about it.
But a hundred years or so after we discover the truth about dark matter, future generations will be able to trace almost all of their “modern” technology and scientific breakthroughs back to the moment scientists figured out what the universe was made of.
It’s not that dark matter itself is valuable (but who knows, right?). The main thing is that we currently have an incomplete model. If dark matter doesn’t exist, then we have a lot more of the universe to figure out than we already have. If it exists, and we are close to observing it, then we are on our way to having a fundamental understanding of how the universe works.
It is a knowledge point from which we can program simulations with full confidence, build better quantum computers and systems, and begin working on technology that exploits the fully realized relationships between matter, antimatter, and dark matter. In short, that’s when the magic really starts.
Whether that happens in the next 30 years or the next 300 hundred may depend entirely on whether physicists can convince politicians to pour more money into these machines without any guarantees that they will actually find what they are looking for.
On the one hand, there are so many others practical things we can put hundreds of billions of euros into.
But on the other hand, what could be more important than solving the greatest mystery in the entire universe?
Further reading: Dear NASA, please put a particle collider on the Moon