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Who turned out the light? Science gets dark

by Nicholas Mazur - Campus Talk Editor
Tue, Feb 13th 2018 06:00 pm

Here at The Beaker Speaker, we talk a lot about science. The importance of science, what science can and cannot do, science and society, the works, really. This week, I thought it would be appropriate to move away from the social impacts of science and dive into the nitty gritty of the world of science, and see what's going on with the actual science of science. So, without much further ado, strap on your safety goggles, button up your lab coats and make sure your beakers are clean. Here we go.

I’m sure that most of you are familiar with an atom; the model of one is fairly simple. In the center is, depending on the type of atom, a combination of neutrons and protons, with neutral and positive charges respectively. This forms the nucleus of an atom. Then of course orbiting the nucleus are the negatively charged electrons. What concerns us in this article is going to be those neutrons in the middle. 

We often hear about the relationship between protons and electrons. After all, they have opposing charges, so they seem more interesting than the neutral, boring neutron; however, scientists have been somewhat perplexed by their nature for some time now. According to Scientific American, it has to do with their inability to survive outside of the nucleus for very long. Science could simply not explain it, but when it could, the experiments used to demonstrate why, in the form of two different experiments, were called “bottle” and “beam” experiments. “Bottle” and “beam” yielded consistently conflicting results, making the them pointless. So, as if we’ve entered a subatomic noir film, the neutrons were disappearing and taking all of their secrets with them.

Then, just when you’d think all hope was lost, enter dark matter. For those not familiar with dark matter, or for those whose only information on it comes from science fiction, here is the run down: dark matter is a form of invisible matter, virtually undetectable by science, yet it accounts for a vast amount of the matter in our universe. In fact, it makes up more of the universe than our “regular” matter. Dark matter may also influence the way that galaxies spin and hold themselves together in the nice, neat compact disc formations. 

So how does this matter, well, matter? Scientists at the University of California believe the neutrons that are disappearing without a trace are becoming dark matter. This, of course, is a fantastic and startling hypothesis, but how to prove it? The answer came in the form of gamma rays, and not the kind that made Bruce Banner into the not-so-jolly green giant. According to the scientists and their calculation at UC, if the neutrons were turning into dark matter, the transformation would leave behind traces in the form of gamma ray photons. 

The way that a neutron normally decays is through a process called beta decay, this process inlolves the neutron turns into a proton, and an electron and antimatter neutrino (which sounds like a cool enough process to have its own article, but let’s stay on track here). This is what the bottle and beam experiments accounted for, but this dark matter form of decay might explain the discrepancy between the two experiments.

Of course, all of this leads only to more questions for scientists, specifically about the mass of a neutron and the mass of a hypothetical dark particle, but more often than not, that’s what science does. One question leads to another, to another, so on and so forth, until who knows when. 

What seems so intriguing about this case, at least to me, is the bridge between the very hypothetical and the theoretical. We know so much about the nature of an atom that we teach seventh graders about it. What was once breaking discoveries long ago is now state required basics. Yet this simple neutron particle, sitting comfortably in the realm of knowledge, is not only showing us new mysteries about the universe, but is also helping to bridge the gap, if only a little, between what we think we know and what we most certainly know very little about.

The real majesty of science isn’t like it is in something like “Star Trek”. you won't find it in discovering some new sentient form of life far beyond ourselves, or discovering some particle that can take us to warp 3 billion or some science fiction plot device (not that I dislike science fiction plot devices, or “Star Trek” for that matter). Science is a long, long, very long journey that takes dedication, an unbelievable amount of patience, and a very human obsession with the truth. 

The majesty of science is conatined in much more quiet moments of discovery and work.  Though the sum of our unknowns is still quite large, I pity any particle who thinks they can hide from the ever-vigilant, ever-searching eye of science.



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