Dark Matter

Yesterday evening I went to see the new film Dark Matter, which opened here in New York this weekend. In many ways, it’s very good, much better than I was expecting.

The plot is loosely based upon the story behind the 1991 shootings at the University of Iowa physics and astronomy department. Gang Lu, a Chinese graduate student who had recently defended his Ph.D. but was having trouble finding a job, shot and killed five people, including his advisor, and severely wounded a sixth person. One unfortunate aspect of the movie is that it rewrites this true story to make the killer much more sympathetic, while making some of the people who were murdered much less so than they seem to have been in real life. The families and friends of the victims may be justly outraged by this. There’s more about the film and the controversy over its relation to the Gang Lu story here.

In the movie the real life space physics at Iowa has been transposed to cosmology at a university in Utah. It remains set in the early 1990s, with protagonist Liu Xing recently arrived in the US from mainland China. His advisor, Jacob Reiser, is a cosmologist with a model called the “Reiser model” which is based on cosmic strings. Liu Xing comes up with what he considers a breakthrough, a new model based on using superstrings to explain dark matter. This doesn’t meet with Reiser’s approval, and he is failed at his dissertation defence for a bogus reason (this is one of the ways the movie sadly departs from a realistic plot or the true story). The scientific advisor for the movie was David H. Weinberg, a cosmologist at Ohio State, and Lee Smolin is thanked among many others in the credits.

The strongest point of the movie is its portrayal of the lives of the graduate students, mostly Chinese, who are struggling to adapt in an alien environment, some of them consumed with a passion to make breakthroughs in science, others already trying to figure out what to do about their not-so-great academic job prospects. The director, Chen Shi-Zheng, emigrated to the US about the same time as Gang Lu, 1987, and so starts from a deep understanding of what the experience of Chinese students arriving in the US at that time must have been like.

Back in the real world, David Harris is reporting from the big April APS meeting on the new Symmetry Magazine blog Symmetry Breaking. In a blog entry entitled Dark Matter Discovered? he reports a rumor that the DAMA collaboration will report on Wednesday that they have detected dark matter in the latest run of their experiment. This story just appears on Slashdot, “slashdotting” whatever unfortunate web-server is running the Symmetry Breaking blog, so it is inaccessible for the moment [I take that back, it just reappeared].

Update: For more about the DAMA rumor from science writers at the APS meeting, see this blog entry from JR Minkel, and a characteristically detailed and informative posting from Jennifer Ouellette.

Update: There are now reports from the talk by Tommaso Dorigo and Alexey Petrov, and the slides are here. Sounds like this experiment is definitely seeing a signal with yearly variation, but it’s controversial whether this is due to dark matter or something else much less interesting.

Update: Yet more from the New York Times and Tommaso on this topic.

Update: Yet more skeptical commentary about DAMA here.

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9 Responses to Dark Matter

  1. Thaddeus says:

    Come on Peter, it’s fiction. Artistic license is not only permissible, it’s desirable.

  2. DB says:

    The Dama collaboration will have a job on their hands to convince sceptics after they cried wolf in 2000. The latest PDG review states:

    “The DAMA experiment operating 100 kg of NaI(Tl) in Gran Sasso has observed, with a statistical significance of 6.3 σ, an annually modulated signal with the expected phase, over a period of 7 years with a total exposure of around 100 000 kg·d, in the 2 to 6 keV (eee) energy interval [33]. This effect is attributed to a WIMP signal by the authors. If interpreted within the standard halo model described above, it would require a WIMP with mχ  50 GeV and σχp  7 · 10−6 pb (central values). This interpretation has, however, several unaddressed implications. In particular, the expected nuclear recoil rate from WIMPs should be of the order of 50% of the total measured rate in the 2–3 keV (eee) bin and 7% in the 4–6 keV (eee) bin. The rather large WIMP signal should be detectable by the pulse shape analysis. Moreover, the remaining, presumably
    e/γ-induced, background would have to rise with energy; no explanation for this is given by the authors. The extended version of DAMA, LIBRA, is now taking data with 250 kg of NaI(Tl) in Gran Sasso; results are scheduled to be published in 2008.”

  3. Coin says:

    Artistic license is not only permissible, it’s desirable.

    Couldn’t we object on purely artistic grounds? It seems to me that storytelling is much less interesting when you try to sugarcoat everything.

  4. Mike says:

    The link to Jennifer Ouellette is broken. You are missing the “t” from “twisted”.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Mike,

    Thanks, now fixed.

  6. axel. says:

    I agree with Coin: turning a tragedy caused by an (apparently) personal crisis into one caused by politics is not a very artistic way of looking at things, is it? but i haven’t seen it yet, only the trailer, and of course the infos on wikipedia are not really “first hand”, either.

  7. luny says:

    I read about this episode in the book Disciplined Minds.
    The account given there was very sympathetic to the student and unsymphathetic to the advisor.

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