For all we understand about the universe, 96% of what’s out there still has scientists in the dark. Astronomical observations have established that familiar matter—atoms—accounts for only 4% of the weight of the cosmos. The rest—dark matter and dark energy—is invisible to our telescopes. But what really is this dark stuff? How do we know it’s there? And what does it do? From the formation of galaxies to the farthest reaches of space, it appears that darkness rules. Without dark matter and dark energy, the universe today and in the far future would be a completely different place. We were joined by leading researchers who smash together particles, dive into underground mines, and explore the edges of the known universe in search of clues to nature’s dark side.
Related WSF Salon: The Mystery of Dark Matter
This program was part of The Big Ideas Series, made possible with the support of the John Templeton Foundation.
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Three-time Peabody Award winner, four-time Emmy Award winner, and Dateline NBC correspondent John Hockenberry has broad experience as a journalist and commentator for more than two decades. Hockenberry is the anchor of the public radio show The Takeaway on WNYC and PRI. He has reported from all over the world, in virtually every medium, having anchored programs for network, cable, and radio. Hockenberry is a noted presenter and moderator at conferences such as TED, Aspen Ideas, and the World Science Festival.
Glennys Farrar is a collegiate professor of physics at New York University. She has made seminal contributions to theoretical particle physics, including demonstrating that quarks are not just mathematical constructs but are actually physically present in matter, and pioneering the search for supersymmetry (which provides the most popular candidate for dark matter and is a prime objective of the Large Hadron Collider). Farrar is particularly interested in the connection of dark matter to other puzzles in physics, such as the excess of matter over anti-matter—without which the Universe would be devoid of galaxies, stars and life—and the possibility that dark matter is actually ordinary matter on a “brane” separated from our own in some unseen, “extra” dimension.
Farrar also uses astrophysics and cosmology to address such fundamental questions. She and a graduate student are currently exploring the possible existence of a new force that may act on dark matter particles but not ordinary matter, by analyzing observations of the merger of two massive clusters of galaxies. Recently, she and her collaborators achieved the first optical detection of the “stellar tidal disruption” phenomenon, with two examples of supermassive black holes tearing a passing star to shreds, releasing a brilliant burst of light that lasts a few months. Further study of this phenomenon promises to elucidate important questions in cosmology, astrophysics and physics.
The first woman to get a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University, Farrar served as chair of the Physics Department at NYU and was founder and first director of its Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics. She has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and on the faculty of Caltech, has spent sabbatical years at CERN, Princeton, and Harvard among other appointments, and serves on numerous advisory panels and editorial boards.
Physicist Katherine Freese works on a wide range of topics in theoretical cosmology and astroparticle physics. A focus of her research has been the attempt to resolve the mystery of the dark matter and dark energy that permeates our universe. She is also working to build a successful model of the early universe immediately after the big bang.
Freese has shown that most of the mass in galaxies does not consist of ordinary stellar material, and has proposed ways to look for alternatives such as supersymmetric particles motivated by particle theory. Currently, there is a great deal of excitement surrounding the possible detections of these particles in a variety of experiments worldwide and in space. Most recently, Freese proposed that Dark Stars powered by dark matter are the first stars to form in the universe.
Freese is the George E. Uhlenbeck Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan and the Associate Director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics.
Theoretical astrophysicist Michael S. Turner is a recognized figure in pioneering the interdisciplinary field of particle astrophysics and cosmology, for which he shared the 2010 Dannie Heineman Prize. In collaboration with Edward Kolb, he initiated the Fermilab astrophysics program, which today accounts for about 10% of the lab’s activities.
Leading the National Academy study, “Quarks to the Cosmos,” which established the strategic vision for the field, Turner’s scholarly contributions also include predicting cosmic acceleration and coining the term “dark energy”; showing how quantum fluctuations evolve into seed perturbations for galaxies during cosmic inflation; and cultivating several key ideas that helped formulate the cold dark matter theory of structure formation.
His honors include the Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society; the Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society (APS); the Klopsted Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers; the Heineman Prize (with Kolb) of the AAS and American Institute of Physics; and the 2011 Darwin Lecture of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Turner has served as Chief Scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory, Assistant Director for the Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation, Chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and President of the Aspen Center for Physics. Turner’s recent national service includes membership on the NRC’s Astronomy Decadal Survey (Astro2010) and Board on Physics and Astronomy. He is also a member of the NASA Advisory Committee (NAC) and Senior Editorial Board of Science Magazine.
Currently, Turner is Chairman of the Board of the Aspen Center for Physics, a Director of the Fermi Research Alliance, and a member of the Governing Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS Council). He is also the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, and Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, which he helped establish. In 2010, he was elected to the Presidential-line of the American Physical Society and will serve as its President in 2013.
Born in Los Angeles, CA, Turner received his B.S. in Physics from Caltech and his M.S. and Ph.D in Physics from Stanford. He also holds an honorary D.Sc. from Michigan State University.
Saul Perlmutter is a professor in Berkeley’s Department of Physics and a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is the leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project, an international collaboration of research teams from seven countries measuring the expansion history of the universe. He received his AB from Harvard in 1981 and his PhD in physics from UC Berkeley in 1986.
Perlmutter is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The American Association for the Advancement of Science named the measurements (by the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z SN Search) indicating an accelerating universe “Science Magazine’s 1998 Breakthrough of the Year.” Among his prizes, he has received the E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Henri Chretien Award from the American Astronomical Society, the 2006 International Antonio Feltrinelli Prize, and shared the Padua Prize (“Padova Citta Delle Stelle”), the Shaw Prize in Astronomy, and the 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize.
Perlmutter is the author of more than 100 papers in the fields of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology, in which he has addressed such topics as the cosmological constant, dark energy, supernovae, pulsars, gravitational lenses, massive compact halo objects and advanced detector systems for astrophysics. At Berkeley, he has developed a course for non-scientists on “Physics & Music.” He has written numerous articles for both academic and popular publications, is a frequently invited lecturer and author, and has appeared in PBS and BBC cosmology documentaries.
Elena Aprile is a professor of physics at Columbia University and is internationally recognized for her experimental work with noble liquid detectors for research in gamma-ray astrophysics and particle astrophysics. She is the founder and spokesperson of the XENON Dark Matter experiment, currently the most sensitive among direct searches for dark matter worldwide, and the one with the highest discovery potential. Aprile has pioneered the development of the liquid xenon imaging detector technology used in XENON and similar experiments. Her publications, review article in Review of Modern Physics, and book on the properties of liquid xenon for radiation detection are widely referred to.
She has served on numerous committees and panels, the last one being the National Academies Astronomy and Astrophysics 2010 Program Prioritization Panel on Particle Astrophysics and Gravitation (2009-2010). From experiments geared to answer fundamental questions—such as the nature of dark matter and the neutrino—to new devices with advanced capabilities in medical and industrial imaging, the kind of detector pioneered by Aprile during her long term at Columbia University will continue to play a vital role.
Known internationally for presenting work of exceptional inventiveness and physical beauty, MOMIX is a company of dancer-illusionists under the direction of Moses Pendleton. In addition to stage performances world-wide, MOMIX has worked in film and television, recently appearing in a national commercial for Hanes underwear and a Target ad that premiered during the airing of the 67th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
MOMIX was also featured in IMAGINE, one of the first 3-D IMAX films to be released in IMAX theaters world-wide. MOMIX dancers Cynthia Quinn and Karl Baumann, under Moses Pendleton’s direction, played the role of “Bluey” in the feature film FX2; and White Widow, co-choreographed by Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn, was featured in Robert Altman’s movie, The Company. Participating in the Homage a Picasso in Paris, MOMIX was also selected to represent the US at the European Cultural Center at Delphi. With the support of the Scottsdale Cultural Council Scottsdale Center for the Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona, Mr. Pendleton created Bat Habits to celebrate the opening of the San Francisco Giants’ new spring training park in Scottsdale.