Physicist Leading the Hunt for Dark Matter Wins Berkeley Prize

June 18, 2018

Elena Aprile leads the XENON collaboration, which has built the world’s largest and most sensitive device yet to look for evidence of weakly interacting massive dark matter particles, or WIMPs. (Symmetry magazine)

Elena Aprile, a physics professor at Columbia who is leading the world’s most sensitive search yet for dark matter, will receive the American Astronomical Society’s 2019 Lancelot M. Berkeley − New York Community Trust Prize. The award comes with $8,000 and an invitation to give the closing talk at AAS’s winter meeting in Seattle in January.

Aprile leads the XENON dark matter experiment, one of several efforts to detect the weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, thought to make up dark matter, an invisible substance believed to make up much of the universe.

In a lab beneath Italy’s Apennine Mountains, Aprile’s team has built ever-more-sensitive detectors to look for evidence of WIMPs. The experiments use large amounts of liquid xenon because xenon atoms have massive nuclei that make them an easier target for intercepting passing dark matter particles. Researchers are searching for the flashes of light expected if a WIMP were to crash into a xenon atom.

In a study in Physical Review Letters last fall, Aprile and her colleagues reported that their most stringent tests yet had failed to turn up any dark matter. Since then, the paper has been cited in 300 other studies, and led physicists to narrow their search to a smaller particle and consider other candidates. Aprile founded the XENON Dark Matter Collaboration in 2002; her team includes more than 165 scientists and students from 24 institutions.

—Kim Martineau