WASHIINGTON – Scientists hoped they came up with an experiment that could explain the origin of the universe – meaning everything, both matter and energy.
But the much-hailed Majorana Demonstrator, located in South Dakota at the super-secret Sanford Underground Research Facility didn’t offer a clue as to why anything should exist at all.
Scientists believe the key to understanding the existence of matter and energy lies in the theory that an equal amount of anti-matter should exist. The trouble, including the recent experiment, has been finding it. Modern physics theory requires it. Without it, nothing should exist.
In the Majorana Demonstrator project, scientists took 65 pounds of germanium, a rare isotope, and cooled it to extremely cold temperatures about a mile underground in a gold mine that has long since been abandoned. It was hoped this experiment would reveal the long-sought-after anti-matter.
Science is clinging to neutrinos, a type of nuclear radiation that is found when atoms decay, leaving behind a proton, an electron and a neutrino. Neutrinos, however, are hard to work with. They seemingly do not even interact with matter, passing straight through matter, like the Earth, without slowing down.
Shedding light on neutrinos was one of the goals of the Majorana Demonstrator project.
While the organizers are very proud of the laboratory conditions they set up for the experiment, the bottom line is that it’s still a mystery why anything exists.
“The excess of matter over anti-matter is one of the most compelling mysteries in science,” said John Wilkerson of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Wilkerson leads the Majorana Demonstrator, which involves 129 researchers from 27 institutions and six nations. “Our experiment seeks to observe a phenomenon called ‘neutrinoless double-beta decay’ in atomic nuclei. The observation would demonstrate that neutrinos are their own antiparticles and have profound implications for our understanding of the universe. In addition, these measurements could provide a better understanding of neutrino mass.”
The problem is that if equal amounts of matter and anti-matter had formed in the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago, one would have annihilated the other upon meeting, and today’s universe would be full of energy but none of the matter needed to form stars, planets and life.
That means, without putting too fine a point on it, the very existence of matter suggests something is wrong with Standard Model equations describing symmetry between subatomic particles and their antiparticles.
So, it’s back to the drawing board and bigger and more expensive experiments.
“The Majorana Demonstrator was designed to lay the groundwork for a ton-scale experiment by demonstrating that backgrounds can be low enough to justify building a larger detector,” said the report. “Just as bigger telescopes collect more light and enable viewing of fainter objects, increasing the mass of germanium allows for a greater probability of observing the rare decay. With 30 times more germanium than the current experiment, the planned one-ton experiment would be able to spot the neutrinoless double-beta decay of just one germanium nucleus per year.”
That project is not expected to be started until 2021. The Majorana Demonstrator is planned to continue to take data for two or three years.
“This merger leverages public investments in the Majorana Demonstrator … by combining the best technologies of each,” said Steve Elliott of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Funding came from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the U.S. National Science Foundation. Sanford Lab is operated by the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority with funding from the Department of Energy.
Estimates on the cost for these experiments were not available.