Fifteen years ago, I was a postgraduate physics student at Oxford, working on a dark matter search experiment, when I first read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material’s trilogy. It was quite a thrill when I reached the part where Lyra walks into our lab to learn what it is, and how we search for it. Here is my perspective on that scene in this epic fantasy.
My immediate response on viewing my first total solar eclipse is just to sit back and admire the beauty of the spectacle: the shimmering white light of the solar corona silhouetted by the perfect black disk of the moon, shaped by the magnetic field of the sun. Of course I have seen hundreds of photographs of the image, but the experience of the real thing is enhanced by the setting.
A deep underground laboratory is not the obvious place to view an eclipse. Yet it is an ideal place to monitor the dancing magnetic field generated by the currents in the ionosphere above us. During a solar eclipse, as the shadow of the moon moves over the upper atmosphere, this dance is disrupted, and we can study how this cool spot impacts the space weather.
The apparent coincidence that our moon so perfectly covers our sun is what makes solar eclipses so spectacular. Coincidence? Maybe. Yet Oxford astrophysicist Steve Balbus has a speculative theory that, 400 million years ago, this may have provided the impetus to encourage our aquatic ancestors to investigate life on land.
The Boulby Mine, on the North Yorkshire coast, is home to a deep underground laboratory hosting experiments studying research topics including dark matter, climate science, carbon-capture, and the search for alien life. In 2012, I was invited to visit by the Director Sean Paling to investigate its potential for planned experiments.
The story of how I set out with a small animation production company on a project to make a series of short 3D films, where our CGI characters would visit astroparticle physics experiments around the world: exploring gamma-ray astronomy in the Namib desert, dark matter searches in a deep underground laboratory, and balloon-borne neutrino detectors flown over the Antarctic ice. This promised to be an epic SciComm adventure, but we didn’t get funded.
Dark matter has long been a popular subject choice for a public talk on particle physics or astronomy. Not only is it genuinely one of the biggest mysteries in modern science, but it is also a great story. The astronomical evidence that the majority of the galaxy is made from some unknown invisible substance is overwhelming. The theory that this missing matter consists of a new type of particle is the frontrunner explanation. It falls to particle physicists to test this hypothesis by searching for dark matter particles—a challenge which we accept with relish.
Experimental particle physics has seen some quite spectacular blunders. In 2008 the Large Hadron Collider was turned on, with the world’s media watching closely. Nine days later a manufacturing fault caused a superconducting wire in a magnet assembly to become non-superconducting. As 13,000 amps of current suddenly encountered resistance, the temperature shot up, an electric arc damaged the liquid helium enclosure, and as two tonnes of liquid helium became non-liquid the resulting explosion destroyed 53 magnets and delayed the project for another year while this was repaired. Oops.