Science from home: dark matter physics

18 May 2020

Interview with 

Ben McAllister, University of Western Australia

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How have scientists been adapting to life without their labs? We’re exploring some of their weird and wonderful lockdown setups on the show - and this week, here’s how one physicist has been scratching his scientific itch...

Ben - Hi. My name's Ben McAllister. I’m an experimental physicist, and like many of you I’m currently working from home.

What does an experimental physicist do at home, you might ask? Well, so far I’ve investigated the gravitational and mechanical properties of my cat...

I’ve constructed a helpful robot from scrap materials and household rubbish...

And like many of you, I’ve been conducting thorough experiments in fluid mechanics.

I want to make it clear to my funding bodies that that was all a joke.

In all seriousness, I can actually get quite a bit of my real research done from home. My work primarily focuses on the detection of dark matter, which is this invisible stuff that makes up five sixths of all the matter in the universe, and which we have almost no idea what it is.

Fortunately for me and my ability to work from home, one of the things we do know about dark matter is that it is all around us, passing through the Earth, and through your very body right now as you hear this. We just can’t see, touch, or feel it. So I’ve captured a little jar of dark matter here, scooped it up in my kitchen, and I’ve been studying its properties from my living room.

Ok, believe it or not, I can’t actually do that part at home. All of our fancy machines and equipment which we use to try and detect the dark matter are down in the lab on the other side of town. But, thanks to the magic of the internet, I can control and operate a lot of those machines remotely and continue working on detecting that pesky invisible stuff.

Myself or a colleague does have to go in the lab from time to time to do a little bit of maintenance, or swap out a component so that we can continue to operate the machines remotely; but we minimise the number of people in there, and it’s a big lab, so we can easily maintain a safe social distance.

And of course, I can do a lot of the other jobs I have to do like data analysis, experimental simulations, and writing up experiments from the comfort of my armchair, without bothering the cat any further.

Oh god, the robot's back!

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