WOSTER: No one knows, but we are looking
Meanwhile, in an abandoned gold mile nearly a mile under the ground below the city of Lead in South Dakota's Black Hills, scientists continue their relentless search for the darkest and (so far) most elusive of forces on the dark side.
The force of which I'm speaking is dark matter, a thing, a substance, a concept so tricky nobody has actually seen it and none of us but the most committed of scientists even know enough to believe or disbelieve in its existence. It's an easy target for skeptics, because when they say "show me,'' there isn't much to show. Well, researchers see a lot of hints and clues, but you and I probably would struggle to even grasp the concept of the clues, much less the matter.
As far as I know, there's been no immediate breakthrough in the search, but every now and then I like to remind myself that there are still people doing research specifically for the sake of learning about mysterious things. The quest for knowledge has always been a human trait, whether the knowledge is marketable or not.
Dark matter is the reason the out-of-business Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills became host to the Sanford Underground Research Facility. The profit ran out for gold mining, but scientists found the location just right for "research in particle and nuclear physics and other science disciplines,'' a background piece for the facility says.
A guy named Ray Davis won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for experiments he'd done as far back as the 1960s down in the mine. He studied neutrinos, particles of matter your physics professor could maybe explain. I talked once with a couple of guys who had summer jobs in the mine. They saw Davis at work and posted gag signs around the lab area reading "Don't Feed The Neutrinos.''
I haven't a clue if the researchers in the underground lab will ever find anything. The simple act of searching fascinated me. Not to be too dramatic, but I have always been awed by our search for the unknown and even the unknowable. I grew up reading "Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet'' and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'' and "Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship.'' Those stories were like Magellan and Balboa and Cortez all wrapped into one.
As a grad student in college, I went bonkers when the series "Star Trek'' hit the television screens in 1966. How thrilling to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no one has gone before? That's pretty much what the researchers down in the mine are doing. It's a bold and noble thing, and it is fascinating. The very idea of the search affirms my belief that humans are supposed to explore, are supposed to seek answers to unanswerable questions, are supposed to reach for the stars, in every direction.
Remember that scene, from the first episode of "The Newsroom,'' when Will McAvoy goes on his rant and talks about why he thinks America isn't the greatest country in the world but used to be? "We reached for the stars,'' he says. "We aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it. It didn't make us feel inferior.'' Deep down under the ground, scientists are reaching for the stars of particle research.
As I only dimly understand it, they aren't exactly sure what they're seeking. A piece in "Scientific American'' says "physicists and astronomers have determined that most of the universe is dark matter — whose existence we infer from its gravitational effects but not through electromagnetic influences such as we find in ordinary, familiar matter.'' The people who study it most say dark matter makes up 80 percent or more of the universe. I'd like to know more about something that significant.
Elsewhere, I found this: "Dark matter is the unseen hand that fashions the universe. It decides where galaxies will form and where they won't. Its gravity binds stars into galaxies and galaxies into galaxy clusters. And when two galaxies merge, dark matter is there, sculpting the product of the merger. But as for what dark matter actually is? No one knows.''
I like that we're trying to find out.