A WIMPy Discovery

June 9, 2011

Brit Trogen


Dark matter must really be pissing scientists off... it takes a lot for a world full of physicists to start calling you a WIMP. Before I get in to the latest news on these mysterious particles, I just have to ask: WIMPs? Seriously? Sure, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles is a fine description for the characteristics we're seeing in dark matter, but why not Super-sized Particles (WISPs) or Huge Particles (WIHPs), or best of all: Poorly Interacting Massive Particles, PIMPs.

A new study from the Coherent Germanium Neutrino Technology (CoGeNT... nothing offensive there) experiment has brought these pimpin' particles back into the news in a major way, with a study that seems to confirm the findings of the Italian Dark Matter (DAMA) experiment of the last decade. The issue is straightforward: since dark matter can't be observed directly, scientists rely on indirect measurements to draw conclusions about it. In this case, by looking for seasonal modulations in their measurements.

The plane of the Milky Way galaxy is believed to contain a "halo" of dark matter, that researchers of this study compare to a cloud of gnats. A driving car would have more gnats hitting the windshield as it moved at faster speeds, and similarly, Earth is exposed to varying levels of dark matter particles depending on the season, due to the relative motion of the Earth around the sun.

This is exactly what the CoGeNT experiment recorded, backing up DAMA for the first time; there appears to be one WIMP particle interaction per day, with a seasonal variation of 16%. However, this experiment, conducted over 15 months, was cut short by a fire, and was initially intended to continue much longer. Fifteen months is really quite short in the particle physics world, so for now we'll just have to wait for more data.

But I for one wouldn't be surprised if dark matter starts blowing us off in the future as payback for the crappy moniker. Nothing ruins a dark and mysterious reputation like being labeled WIMPy...



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