PhD student endeavours to shed light on the origins of dark matter

It makes up more than 80 per cent of the unaccounted-for mass in our universe, but remains a mystery. One UAlberta PhD student is among those hoping to change that.

Katie Willis - 26 October 2020

Daniel Durnford’s research centres on the invisible. His research in the field of astroparticle physics explores dark matter—a type of matter that has never been observed in the way that protons, neutrons, and electrons have been.

“For almost 100 years we've been collecting evidence for the existence of invisible matter in the cosmos by observing its gravitational impact on everything from individual galaxies to the cosmic microwave background—the imprint of the Big Bang,” said Durnford. 

“Dark matter makes up more than 80 per cen of the unaccounted-for mass in our universe. The nature of dark matter is one of the biggest unsolved problems of modern physics, essentially guaranteed to upend our picture of particle physics no matter what the answer turns out to be.”

A PhD student in the University of Alberta’s Department of Physics, Durnford is studying under the supervision of Assistant Professor Marie-Cécile Piro in an effort to get scientists one step closer to solving that particular problem.

Durnford is working on the NEWS-G (New Experiments with Spheres - Gas) experiment to look for particle dark matter. NEWS-G is in the midst of constructing a sensitive particle detector that uses noble gases to search for possible interactions from dark matter particles. “Right now NEWS-G is in the process of installing our next detector at the SNOLAB facility in Sudbury Ontario, two kilometres underground in a mine to protect the highly sensitive experiment from atmospheric radiation,” added Durnford. 

In particular, Durnford’s graduate research is focused on the process of analyzing data to determine if it is possible to detect a signal from dark matter, which involves intensive calibration of data and modelling. 

“To me this statistical analysis is the most exciting part—knowing that a discovery could be hiding in the gigabytes of data on your laptop if you can just extract the answer,” he said. “But doing so rigorously is very difficult, requiring careful calibration of your detector and simulations so that you know exactly what a dark matter signal would look like if present.” 

The Faculty of Science’s Department of Physics is world-renowned for astroparticle physics research, state-of-the-art infrastructure and technical support that includes a machine shop, electrical shop, radon-free laboratory, and hacker-space. 

Earlier this year, Durnford received first place for his presentation at the annual Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) Congress in the particle physics division. The virtual conference was co-led by Piro, and included scientists from across the country.