At the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in a man made underground cavern, deep underneath a mountain, scientists are beavering away in attempt to shed light on one of the most baffling substances in our Universe, dark matter.
Their new found workplace is more like a Bond villain’s lair than a central hub for some of the greatest minds of physics.
The lair is buried under the highest peak of Italy’s Gran Sasso mountain range; the entrance concealed behind a gigantic steel entrance leading to a tunnel which cuts straight through the mountain.“The feeling is that dark matter could be just around the corner, so everybody is rushing to be the first to find it”
The choice of location is not by chance but following careful consideration. The 1,400m of rock above means that it is shielded from the cosmic rays that constantly bombard the surface of our planet.
It provides scientists with the “silence” they need to understand some of the strangest phenomena known to physics.
Inside three vast halls, a raft of experiments are running – but with their latest addition, DarkSide50, scientists are setting their sights on dark matter.
Everything we know and can see in the Universe only makes up about 4% of the stuff that is out there.
The rest, scientists believe, comes in two enigmatic forms.
What is dark matter?
- Normal matter gives out or absorbs light to make it visible, but matter doesn’t have to interact with light this way
- Astrophysicists calculate that there isn’t enough visible matter to explain the rotation of galaxies
- They proposed a type of matter that we can’t detect in the normal way – dark matter
- You can’t see dark matter directly with telescopes, but its gravitational effect can be seen on visible matter
- Dark matter should be all around us, so scientists are developing new ways to detect these mysterious particles
- They predict that about 73% of the Universe is made up of dark energy – a prevalent energy field that acts against the forces of gravity to stop the Universe from imploding.
The other 23%, researchers believe, comes in the form of dark matter. The challenge is that until now nobody has seen it.
Dr Chamkaur Ghag, a particle physicist from University College London, explains: “We think it is in the form of a particle.
“We have protons, neutrons and electrons and all these regular normal particles that you associate building things with. We think dark matter is a particle too, it’s just an odd form of matter in the fact that we don’t perceive it very readily.
“And that is because it doesn’t feel the electromagnetic force – light doesn’t bounce off it, we don’t interact with it very strongly.”
Physicists refer to these dark matter contenders as WIMPS – Weakly Interacting Massive Particles.
They believe millions of them are passing through us every second without a trace.
But very occasionally one will bump into a piece of “regular” matter – and that is what they are hoping to detect.