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Illuminating the dark

Professor Derek F. Jackson Kimball sheds some light on his research into dark matter

Gravity keeps us down, thermodynamics keep us warm and dark energy is getting big. CSU East Bay physics Professor Derek F. Jackson Kimball uncovers the nature of dark matter.

Students from the physics department gathered in Science A 475 to listen to Kimball explain his research into the nature of dark matter. Kimball and his team hypothesized that dark matter is axion particles.

Axion particles are hypothetical particles that are unbelievably small and weigh almost nothing. They’re classified as boson particles. This means multiple axion particles could occupy the same space without interfering with one another.

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Professor Kimball pointing out equations used to determine the frequency of an axion’s rotation. | Photo by Collin Slavey

Why does dark matter matter? Kimball used a colorful example to explain his pursuits in physics. His colleague Max Zolotorev, a former citizen of Soviet Russia, said that physicists care about dark matter because they “are curious to know how things work.”

“Three percent of rats are physicists,” Zolotorev said. “In a Soviet experiment, an electrode is placed on top of a rat cage. Seventy percent of rats touch the electrode, get shocked and never touch the electrode again. Twenty-seven percent of rats watch 70 percent of rats touch the electrode, get shocked and never touch electrode in the first place. Three percent of rats touch the electrode and get shocked. Then the [three percent of rats] touch the electrode from the side, gets shocked. Then rats touch the top of electrode, also gets shocked. [Those] three percent of rats are physicists.”

Kimball hopes to detect the axion particles in a rather unconventional way. Since the theoretical particle would be very small, Kimball’s team is going to try to detect them using magnetic resonance.

Gynell Higby, a student of physics at HSU, attended the seminar. She was inspired by Kimball’s efforts.

“Theories were taken from my modern physics class and made real,” Higby said. “That he can put together a new model from his mind and make it happen, it’s awesome.”

Kimball is working together with physicists from around the world to figure out whether their axion hypothesis is valid. To detect axion particles using magnetic resonance, the GNOME program is a global network of sensors designed to record an event where the planet Earth passes through axion particles.

The basic idea is to get a baseline recording of what space sounds like. When a sensor passes through dark matter, the axion particles in the air will change the baseline recording, appearing as a spike or a curve over the baseline data. Alas, so far there has been no such event.

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Professor Derek Kimball | Photo by Collin Slavey

Dark matter is a great mystery of nature. It won’t necessarily build a better toaster, but to discover what dark matter is will be a great human achievement. Kimball began his explanation of dark matter with a brief overview of what we know about it.

First, we cannot see dark matter because it does not interact with light. That’s why dark matter is dark. Second, there is a lot of dark matter. Observations and a lot of complicated gravitational math inform us that dark matter makes up 26.8 percent of the observable universe.

The remaining 63.8 percent of space is dark energy, an expanding force. And the remaining 4.9 percent of the universe is observable matter, stars, planets, galaxies etc. Finally, we know that we know just about nothing else about dark matter.

Knowing so little drives Kimball’s research. Physicists know dark matter exists because of some significant astronomical observations. Primarily, the fact galaxies don’t spin themselves apart as they rotate tells us dark matter exists.

If only the gravity from visible matter was holding galaxies together, galaxies would break apart and scatter stars across the universe. But they don’t. Gravity from dark matter and visible matter combined has enough force to hold galaxies together. The math works out to confirm dark matter exists.

“We may be just swimming in dark matter,” Kimball said. “We could be able to detect it here from Earth today. Or maybe we are mostly sitting in nothing but every so often we run into dark matter. It may be clumped up in little dark matter balls or it may exist as massive dark matter walls. We will figure it out.”

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