Yale professor offers new method to detect dark matter

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Yale professor David Moore, along with three other colleagues from other institutions, proposes the use of trapped electrons to detect dark matter.

Alex ye

11:52 PM, 02 Nov 2021

Contributing journalist


Jessai Flores

A new idea proposed by David Moore, assistant professor of physics at Yale, could bring the scientific community closer to understanding dark matter – a hypothetical and mysterious substance that scientists say occupies about 85% of the matter in the universe .

Moore’s proposal takes existing technology in quantum computing and reuses it for dark matter detection. The proposed method uses electrons and trapped ions as ultra-sensitive detectors to find weakly interacting particles such as dark matter. Trapped electrons serve this purpose well because of their light charge, which can be affected even by weak forces caused by dark matter. This method of detecting dark matter has the potential to deepen the understanding of dark matter and the universe as a whole by the scientific community. Moore worked with three other collaborators at different institutions to complete the proposal.

“[Trapped electrons] are the lightest charged and known particles, ”wrote Hartmut Haeffner, assistant professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the researchers involved in the proposal, in an email to News. “Thus, their state of movement is affected even by very small forces.”

Although dark matter makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe, detecting its presence is a difficult task. Dark matter, unlike normal matter, does not interact with electromagnetic forces. Thus, only extremely sensitive particles are viable dark matter detectors.

According to Daniel Carney, an assistant professor of physics at UC Berkeley involved in the study, the ability to detect weak signals has been widely studied by the scientific community.

“In physics, we’re constantly trying to figure out how to detect weaker and weaker signals,” Carney wrote in an email to The News. “For example, the gravitational wave community now detects the movement of a 40 kilogram object within 0.1% of the width of a proton.”

To detect dark matter, the researchers used technologies already developed in quantum computing, reusing them to search for dark matter.

According to Moore, quantum computers are built using “trapped charged particles”, which happen to be “excellent dark matter detectors” because of their sensitivity.

“The electron is ‘trapped’ by applying a laser that creates a potential,” Carney wrote. “Basically the electron is like a ball at the bottom of a U-shaped valley. If something hits the electron, it goes up the hills in the valley.

Using this method, the researchers hope to open the doors to further study of dark matter and its properties.

Despite dark matter making up such a large proportion of matter in the universe, Moore explained that before the proposal, scientists had not been able to detect its presence in the lab.

“It brings together the greatest types of structures in the universe,” Moore said. “But we’ve never been able to detect it here on Earth… even though it’s, you know, the most common material in the universe.”

Moore explained that having the ability to “see” the location of dark matter particles would allow scientists to measure their velocity distribution as well. He envisions the study of dark matter moving away from particle physics and more towards dark matter astronomy, which will lead to a better understanding of the universe.

Despite this, however, Moore believes the scientific community is still one step away from real understanding of dark matter.

“You have to have some really new and much more sensitive detectors or some fundamentally new ideas to detect some of the other possibilities of what [dark matter] could be, ”Moore said.

Nevertheless, the detection method proposed by Moore and his team has the potential to be useful in many other areas.

Carney pointed out that the extreme sensitivity of the trapped electrons can likely be used in a multitude of scenarios other than detecting dark matter, although many of those scenarios remain to be discovered.

“Isolated electrons can detect energies about a millionth or a billionth of the scale of typical chemical energy – that’s incredibly fine resolution,” Carney wrote. “There are probably a lot of good things this could be used for, but we need the community to help us think of good use cases. “

Moore has been a faculty member at Yale since 2016.


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