From SURF: “Science Superheroes discuss dark matter, dark energy in pop culture”

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Sanford Underground levels

Sanford Underground Research facility

Mr. Incredible, Quailman and Jack in the Box shed light on the dark side of the universe

October 30, 2017
Constance Walter

Constance Walter, communications director at Sanford Lab, introduces panelists (from left), James Haiston Jr., Michael Dowding and Jack Genovesi, all from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Matthew Kapust

Last night, three science superheroes from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SD Mines) made an appearance during Sanford Lab’s Dark Matter Day. Although they don’t fight crime, they do everything in their power to shed light on the role dark matter and dark energy play in the universe.

In their panel discussion “Shedding light on dark matter and dark energy,” SD Mines physics lecturer Michael Dowding, aka Mr. Incredible, along with fellow science superheroes and SD Mines Ph.D. students James Haiston Jr., aka Quailman, and Jack Genovesi, aka Jack in the Box, discussed the dark side of the universe—and, perhaps more importantly, the role it plays in popular culture.

Genovesi started the discussion by first identifying scientific terms associated with the search for dark matter, including WIMPs and Axions, both candidates for dark matter particles. Still, Genovesi said, “We don’t know what dark matter is. That’s why we’re here, right?”

After a brief introduction to dark matter and dark energy, Dowding delved into pop culture.

“Dark matter and dark energy have both been used in numerous works as plot devices in video games, TV shows, movies and literature,” Dowding said. “Both have been included in everything from outlandish technologies, aka technobabble, fuel or power sources, as well as magical influences.”

Dark matter and dark energy make up roughly 95 percent of the universe, yet we know very little about them. Which could be what makes them such a great topic for popular culture, Dowding said.

Although we can’t see these elusive particles, scientists know they exist because of the way they act on the universe—dark matter can be thought of as the glue that holds galaxies together, while dark energy is a force that pushes things apart.

“Everything we know about the universe—regular matter and energy—accounts for a fraction of the universe,” said Dowding.

Haiston closed the discussion with an overview of the many dark matter experiments going on around the world, including the LUX and LUX-ZEPLIN dark matter experiments.

LUX Dark matter Experiment at SURF, Lead, SD, USA

LBNL Lux Zeplin project at SURF

“Where there is science, there is technology,” Haiston said. “Almost every luxury of the first world is provided by scientific findings and the useful application of technology.”

More than 60 people attended the event. The prize for best costume went to Nancy Geary, who received a $25 gift certificate to the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center.

Sanford Lab’s Dark Matter Day, held at the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center in Lead, was sponsored by Matt Klein, Century 21 Associated Realty of Deadwood and Dakota Shivers Brewing in Lead.

For more information about Dark Matter Day events around the world, go to

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About us.
The Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, advances our understanding of the universe by providing laboratory space deep underground, where sensitive physics experiments can be shielded from cosmic radiation. Researchers at the Sanford Lab explore some of the most challenging questions facing 21st century physics, such as the origin of matter, the nature of dark matter and the properties of neutrinos. The facility also hosts experiments in other disciplines—including geology, biology and engineering.

The Sanford Lab is located at the former Homestake gold mine, which was a physics landmark long before being converted into a dedicated science facility. Nuclear chemist Ray Davis earned a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002 for a solar neutrino experiment he installed 4,850 feet underground in the mine.

Homestake closed in 2003, but the company donated the property to South Dakota in 2006 for use as an underground laboratory. That same year, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the project. The South Dakota Legislature also created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to operate the lab. The state Legislature has committed more than $40 million in state funds to the project, and South Dakota also obtained a $10 million Community Development Block Grant to help rehabilitate the facility.

In 2007, after the National Science Foundation named Homestake as the preferred site for a proposed national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) began reopening the former gold mine.

In December 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of DUSEL. However, in 2011 the Department of Energy, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agreed to support ongoing science operations at Sanford Lab, while investigating how to use the underground research facility for other longer-term experiments. The SDSTA, which owns Sanford Lab, continues to operate the facility under that agreement with Berkeley Lab.

The first two major physics experiments at the Sanford Lab are 4,850 feet underground in an area called the Davis Campus, named for the late Ray Davis. The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment is housed in the same cavern excavated for Ray Davis’s experiment in the 1960s.
LUX/Dark matter experiment at SURFLUX/Dark matter experiment at SURF

In October 2013, after an initial run of 80 days, LUX was determined to be the most sensitive detector yet to search for dark matter—a mysterious, yet-to-be-detected substance thought to be the most prevalent matter in the universe. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment, also on the 4850 Level, is searching for a rare phenomenon called “neutrinoless double-beta decay” that could reveal whether subatomic particles called neutrinos can be their own antiparticle. Detection of neutrinoless double-beta decay could help determine why matter prevailed over antimatter. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment is adjacent to the original Davis cavern.

Another major experiment, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE)—a collaboration with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and Sanford Lab, is in the preliminary design stages. The project got a major boost last year when Congress approved and the president signed an Omnibus Appropriations bill that will fund LBNE operations through FY 2014. Called the “next frontier of particle physics,” LBNE will follow neutrinos as they travel 800 miles through the earth, from FermiLab in Batavia, Ill., to Sanford Lab.

Fermilab LBNE