Shedding Light on Dark Matter

By Spencer Curcillo

This past weekend Youngstown State University’s planetarium debuted its newest program “Dark.” The program examines astronomers’ search for dark matter.

Dark matter is a type of matter that does not emit light, making it unobservable to telescopes. Scientists estimate it makes up the majority of the matter in the universe.

Sharon Shanks, a planetarium lecturer at YSU, explained the difficulty in studying dark matter.

“The things that astronomers study give off light,” Shanks said. “They give off more than visible light; they give off all the other wavelengths. We have detectors that can pick up on those wavelengths. That’s how we get our information about these stars we can’t touch.”

Curt Spivey, a planetarium engineer at YSU, explains what makes the show and its subject so unusual.

“The thing about dark matter is that across all of the wavelengths we can see its effect on the stuff we can see, but we can’t see it,” Spivey said. “‘How do you find something you can’t see?’ is the basic gist of this show.”

Spivey also explained the importance of observing dark matter for the scientific community.

“Eighty percent of the matter in the universe [scientists] speculate is dark matter we can’t see,” Spivey said. “The stars and the galaxies we see seems like a lot, but it’s only 20 percent of what’s actually out there.”

Alan Duffy of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at the University of Western Australia is narrating the show. At his university, he and his team of researchers create simulations using supercomputers to visualize dark matter.

Spivey said the show is on the cutting edge of the field today, and it has great value in terms of entertainment as well as education.

“To me, what makes astronomy interesting is that we’re always learning something new,” Spivey said. “With our shows we’re not only trying to entertain you, but we’re trying to show you what is going on in this fascinating field that Sharon and I are in. This is some of the more interesting stuff that’s out there and something that’s right on the forefront of the research in astronomy and astrophysics today.”

Shanks said she wants to get more college students interested, as they make up a relatively small portion of the planetarium’s attendees.

“Astronomy is open to everyone,” Shanks said. “All you need to do is look up and think about what’s out there or could be out there.”

Spivey agreed, adding that the planetarium has ongoing efforts to bring new content to its viewers free of charge.

“We try to keep bringing in new content to the planetarium to keep our shows fresh, and we hope people will come out so we can continue to keep doing that,” Spivey said.