Finding Beauty in the Search for Dark Matter

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Right now, one of the biggest races in science is the search for dark matter. “It's really very very scary to know that after all these years of civilization we still don't know 95% of our universe,” says experimental physicist Elena Aprile. “It makes you feel very small.” Aprile heads a research team at Columbia University trying to get one step closer to finding it.

Her detectors are stainless steel cylinders that are filled with liquid xenon gas cooled to about -150° F. When the working model is buried in a mile-deep chamber, she hopes to catch a glimpse of dark matter in that highly controlled environment. But the detectors are more than just equipment for Aprile; she’s passionate about their aesthetics, snapping photos of the detectors when the light hits just so.

“Maybe it's pretentious but it is a work of art. It is feeling so powerful in a sense, because it came all from your hands. I do feel sometime like a Michelangelo.” Her less romantic, less Italian colleagues compare the detectors’ profile to other shiny objects, like a robot, or a spaceship, or most unfortunately, a trash can.

Aprile’s concern with design may have to do with the fact that its functionality is not a given. Since scientists don't know what dark matter looks like, they can only guess at the best way to see it. “Unfortunately in this business we don't really know we are following the right path,” says Aprile. “Some time I get depressed, but there's no time to get depressed now. I don't think I will ever give up. Because there is no other way.”

Slideshow: Inside Elena Aprile’s Lab