Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.

Scientists have observed an extremely rare particle physics event using a detector that's hunting for dark matter, the mysterious material that physicists have yet to observe.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, researchers with the XENON Collaboration said they'd observed the radioactive decay of a substance called xenon-124, an isotope of the element xenon — a colorless and odorless noble gas found in tiny amounts in the atmosphere. The event — a "two-neutrino double electron capture" — has eluded scientists for decades.

It happens when "two protons in a nucleus are simultaneously converted into neutrons by the absorption of two electrons from one of the atomic shells and the emission of two electron neutrinos." After this occurs, the event shoots out a predictable cascade of X-rays and Auger electrons that scientists look for using an ultra-sensitive detector, buried about 5,000 feet beneath Italy's Gran Sasso mountain where it's shielded from cosmic rays.

"We have shown that we can observe the rarest events ever recorded," Ethan Brown, a professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and co-author of the study, told Newsweek. "The key finding is that an isotope formerly thought to be completely stable has now been shown to decay on an unimaginably long timescale."

How long is that timescale? The team estimated that xenon-124's half-life is about 18 sextillion years — or 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years — which is than one trillion times the age of our universe, according to the team. It's the slowest process ever measured directly, the team wrote in a statement.

"It's an amazing to have witnessed this process, and it says that our detector can measure the rarest thing ever recorded," Brown told The Independent.

"We designed the XENON1T experiment to look for dark matter, a new kind of matter that makes up 85 percent of the mass of the universe, but interacts so rarely that it's never been observed," Brown said. "This experiment is so sensitive to very rare events that we can make all kinds of other rare physics measurements. One of those is this decay of xenon-124. Although our primary goal was always the discovery of dark matter, we knew there was a good chance we could see this rare decay, so we set out to do so."

To get that good chance, the team had to expose their detector to a huge amount of xenon atoms by stocking it with 3.2 tons worth of liquid xenon.

"XENON1T is a giant vat of liquid xenon surrounded by light sensors," Brown said. "When dark matter collides in the xenon, or when a radioactive decay occurs inside, we get a tiny flash of light and a little bunch of charge out of the xenon. We measure these with the light sensors and reconstruct everything we can about the original event that caused the light and charge."

Although the team didn't observe dark matter — which is the primary purpose of the detector — the recent observations could help scientists learn more about neutrinos, one of the least understood fundamental particles in the universe.

"It proves that this XENON detector technology we use for dark matter is much more versatile," graduate student Christian Wittweg, Ph.D student at the University of Münster in Germany, told Gizmodo. "We get all these cool analyses... for free after having built an experiment sensitive enough to hunt for dark matter."

The team plans to use its newer XENONnT detector to continue hunting for dark matter, the elusive material that's estimated to comprise about 26.8 percent of all the content in the universe.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.