Small teams, big dreams
||A small group of determined scientists can make big contributions to physics. Photo: Sandbox Studio with Ana Kova|
Particle physics is the realm of billion-dollar machines and teams of thousands of scientists, all working together to explore the smallest components of the universe.
But not all physics experiments are huge, as the scientists of DAMIC, Project 8, SPIDER and ATRAP can attest. Each of their groups could fit in a single Greyhound bus, with seats to spare.
Don't let their size fool you; their numbers may be small, but their ambitions are not.
Small detectors play an important role in searching for difficult-to-find particles.
Take dark matter, for example. Because no one knows what exactly dark matter is or what the mass of a dark matter particle might be, detection experiments need to cover all the bases.
DAMIC is an experiment that aims to observe dark matter particles that larger detectors can't see.
The standard strategy used in most experiments is scaling up the size of the detector to increase the number of potential targets for dark matter particles to hit. DAMIC takes another approach: eliminating all sources of background noise to allow the detector to see potential dark matter particle interactions of lower and lower energies.
The detector sits in a dust-free room 2 kilometers below ground at SNOLAB in Sudbury, Canada. To eliminate as much noise as possible, it is held in 10 tons of lead at around minus 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Its small size allows scientists to shield it more easily than they could a larger instrument.
DAMIC is currently the smallest dark matter detection experiment — both in the size of apparatus and the number of people on the team. While many dark matter detectors use more than a hundred thousand grams of active material, the current version of DAMIC runs on a mere five grams, and the full detector will have 100 grams. Its team is made up of around 10 scientists and students.
"What's really nice is that even though this is a small experiment, it has the potential of making a huge contribution and having a big impact," says DAMIC member Javier Tiffenberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Fermilab.