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How to build a dark matter detector - Jenna Saffin


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More than 2 kilometers below the surface of northern Ontario, suspended in 345,000 liters of ultra-pure water, there’s a perfect sphere. Scientists continuously monitor this chamber, looking for a glimmer of light in the darkness. Why? Because that light would indicate the presence of one of the universe’s greatest mysteries: dark matter. Jenna Saffin describes how this dark matter detector works.

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Setting up experiments to directly detect dark matter isn’t the only way scientists are trying to study it—they are also trying to create it. The experiments described in this lesson work to detect dark matter by waiting for dark matter particles to pass through and interact with the detector. However, with particle colliders, scientists are able to smash particles together and then study the results, looking for evidence of dark matter. Learn more about dark matter science being done at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

Designing experiments is just part of the process in the hunt for dark matter. Running these experiments in locations that protect them from background radiation is a huge challenge. Kilometers of rock works well as shielding, so lab facilities are developed underground or inside mountains. Underground labs are built in mines; some of them, like this one in the UK, are in mines that are still active. Others, like this one in the US, give new life to mines that are no longer active. Check out this video to see what it’s like for scientists going to work in an underground lab. Take a virtual tour here.

In the 1920s, scientists first hypothesized that the universe contained additional matter that we couldn’t see. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that astronomers were able to accurately measure the amount of “missing mass” in galaxies. Based on research that determined how fast galaxies rotated, astronomers discovered that galaxies had to contain more mass than visible matter accounted for or they would fly apart. Vera Rubin was one of the scientists whose work provided the first observational evidence that dark matter existed. You can read more about her work and the history of our understanding of dark matter in this article.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Jenna Saffin
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Script Editor Dan Kwartler
  • Designer Tara Sunil Thomas
  • Music Matt Tyson
  • Associate Producer Elizabeth Cox, Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Julianna Zarzycki
  • Fact-Checker Brian Gutierrez

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