Study could point to piece in antimatter puzzle

Experiment cryostat
Researchers work on the delicate wiring of a cryostat, which chills the germanium detectors at the heart of the Majorana Demonstrator experiment. (Sanford Underground Research Facility Photo / Matthew Kapust)

An experiment conducted deep underground in an old South Dakota gold mine has given scientists hope that a future detector could help solve one of physics’ biggest puzzles: why the universe exists at all.

Put another way, the puzzle has to do with the fact that the universe is dominated by matter.

That may seem self-evident, but it’s not what’s predicted by Standard Model of particle physics as currently understood. Instead, current theory suggests that the big bang should have given rise to equal parts of matter and antimatter, which would annihilate each other within an instant.

Scientists suspect that there must have been something about the big bang that gave matter an edge more than 13 billion years ago. So far, the mechanism hasn’t been identified — but one leading theory proposes that the properties of neutrinos have something to do with it.

The problem is, neutrinos interact so weakly with other particles that it’s hard to detect what they’re doing. The experiment conducted in the nearly mile-deep Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota was aimed at figuring out whether a detector could be shielded well enough from background radiation to spot the effect that scientists are looking for.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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