With all our science experiments, big machines, and monumental discoveries, it’s easy to forget that we, as a species, are still pretty dumb. Not in a “we were so focused on if we could, we never stopped to think if we should!” type of way (though that’s probably true as well), just in terms of sheer metrics: cold, dispassionate, void-of-opinion numbers. Here’s a quote from Dr Mauro Raggi, from Sapienza University in Rome, that illustrates the numerical quality of our dumbness pretty nicely:
“At the moment, we don’t know what more than 90% of the universe is made of.”
Yep. All the math we have to explain how the universe works does so quite nicely, except for one little, teeny-tiny, problem. The math only accounts for 4% of the universe. The other 96% of the observable universe is just sort of invisible. It’s referred to as the “dark sector” of the universe, and that’s what Dr Raggi and other scientists at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics are trying to observe. The dark sector is made up of dark matter and dark energy, and it’s referred to as “dark” because it’s never actually been detected, it’s only been predicted by equations which have, so far, been pretty spot-on.
According to the Guardian, scientists at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics are about to flip the on-switch of a machine that will hopefully give a glimpse into the illusive and, as of yet, only mathematically predicted “dark sector” that makes up 96% of the universe. The machine is called PADME, an acronym for Positron Annihilation into Dark Matter Experiment, which is such a great name that they should have foregone the acronym entirely.
If successful, this experiment would change modern physics and our understanding of the universe. According to Dr Raggi:
“If we find this force it will completely change the paradigm we have now. It would open up a new world and help us to understand the particles and forces that compose the dark sector.”
Along with proving the existence of dark matter, they say there’s a chance, albeit a remote chance, that such experiments could find a fifth fundamental force of the universe which dictates how dark matter behaves. It’s called the “dark force,” because for every of a name like Photon Annihilation into Dark Matter Experiment there’s a real stinker to balance it out.
So far we know of four fundamental forces of nature: the electromagnetic force, gravity, the strong force, and the weak force. The electromagnetic force refers to electrons behave and, consequently, magnetism and electricity. The strong force binds the nucleus of atoms together, weak force is observed in radiation, and gravity is slowly crushing us all. The dark force would add another to that list, but it’s complete speculation whether it’s even a reasonable thing to look for.
PADME will blast a stream of positrons—a form of antimatter—at a sheet of diamond. When the positrons hit the diamond sheet they will immediately collide with electrons and explode in a faint flash of light. If the team is correct, the amount of energy released will occasionally be lower than normal, this would be due to “dark photons” being created by the hypothesized “dark force.”
Bryan McKinnon, a research fellow at Glasgow University is part of a separate team searching for the mysterious dark sector. He says:
“It would definitely be a huge thing in physics if some evidence of a dark sector was found. Right now, it’s labelled as such because it’s the stuff we don’t understand. If a door can be opened, what will come out? That’s guesswork right now.”
The dark photon, if it exists, is effectively a portal. It lets us peer into the dark sector to see what is happening. It won’t open the floodgates, but it will allow us to have a little look.”
It’s a good time for the weird side of the universe. Last week scientists successfully induced chemical changes in antimatter for the first time, and now people are about to start shooting antimatter beams at diamonds hoping to open portals to a dark sector. Things are getting weird, and at this rate, there’s a non-trivial probability that we all ascend as cosmic god-sorcerers in the not-so-distant future. There’s a better chance that we’ll just do some new and improved math, though.