On the Surface of a Dust Particle


“Dear Radioactive Friends, today I have done a terrible thing for a theoretical physicist, that is, to introduce a new particle that nobody will ever be able to see.”
—Wolfgang Pauli, 1930s

It’s been said that we are a geological force. Over the short history of humankind we have learned to transform materials from the biosphere to our convenience. Technicians have been trained in the art of transforming rocks into square-shaped hills for us to inhabit. Communication technologies have also contributed to the formation of new landscapes on our planet’s surface. Recent efforts in science have attempted to develop design methods and tools towards an integrated biologically-engineered environment, and synthetic biology is emerging as a promising field towards a soft and evolutive process of integration with nature. We are now able to engineer matter itself. But according to astrophysics such matter and all visible matter in our immense universe scarcely represents four percent of what’s out there. The remaining is dark to us. Indeed it’s called dark matter.

Can designers explore ways of understanding and interacting with dark matter? To what degree is it feasible to modify visible matter and even address challenges unreachable within our current production model? Although seemingly audacious, to address dark matter is a substantive hypothesis, and speculating on its potential for design could help unlock the confines of design and its subsequent realities. After all, no one took Fritz Zwicki very seriously when he first suggested the existence of dark matter back in 1930s.

The Genetic Manipulation of Known Matter

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would.
You see?”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

Engineers dabbling with biology, and designers exploring future materials isn’t speculation, but real current practice.[1] The frontiers of design have been made possible by the confluence of technical advances and increasing collaboration between different knowledge fields. Today, bio-engineered design products are tested in laboratories, as designers become accustomed to interact and exchange ideas with biologists, material scientists, biological engineers, and even bio-programmers.

We’ve arrived at the stage where we can manipulate the very stuff life is made of: the cell. Formed by molecules of atoms joined by energy, further broken down into configurations of protons, neutrons, and electrons, living things are made up of the same chemical components as non-living things; and they all obey the same physical and chemical laws at the macroscopic level. Astronomers refer to this as ‘baryonic matter’. In looking to dark matter, we step into the little-known world of ‘non baryonic-matter‘.

Dark Matter as the Rule in the Cosmos

The Photopic Sky Survey. A 5,000 Mp photo of the entire night sky stitched together from 37,440 exposures.

“The rotation velocity curves of stars in galaxies, the behavior of galaxies in clusters and super- clusters, and the lensing effects of galaxies and galactic clusters on photons reaching us from the most distant parts of the universe, all indicate that the universe contains predominant quantities of non-luminous matter whose influence is felt only through its gravitational effects.Yet despite 65 years of study the nature and origin of this dark matter remains unresolved.”
—A.D. Ernest [2]

The cosmos is mostly formed by dark energy and dark matter. Although virtually imperceptible, it is believed that dark matter constitutes approximately 83 percent of all matter in the universe. Dark matter pulls things together, generates attractive gravity, and even suggests new particle species. To understand the largest structures in the cosmos we should understand the structure of its smallest particles, going from outer space to inner space, as if taking the journey suggested by the Eames’ film Powers of 10. Although most matter in the universe is dark, we only perceive its gravitational effects. Matter as we know it is just a thin network of threads connecting clusters of dark matter. Within these nodes dark matter accumulates and galaxies are formed.

Nobody knows exactly what dark matter is made of. The Cold Dark Matter hypothesis posits that they are ‘weakly interacting massive particles’ (WIMPs) because they can pass through ordinary matter without any effects, yet they have mass. A few hypothetical WIMPs have been suggested including neutrinos, axions, and neutralinos. A neutrino is an electrically neutral elementary particle that is able to pass through ordinary matter almost undisturbed. Neutrinos have a minuscule, but nonzero mass. Axions are particles with minimum mass that would have been produced abundantly in the Big Bang. They have been proposed to explain why the neutron is electrically neutral. Neutralinos are massive particles – they may be 30 to 5000 times the mass of a proton.

Invisible Forces. Anhony de Vicenzi.

Scientists are already exploring the occurrence of these particles, deep underground and way out in space. A good example is the CERN particle physics laboratory, situated in the northwest suburbs of Geneva on the Franco-Swiss border, with the Large Hadron Collider tunnel located one hundred meters underground in the region between the Geneva airport and the nearby Jura mountains. There is also the Lake Baikal Neutrino Telescope, now being constructed for deep underwater neutrino research. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, is the largest neutrino telescope in the world and there, a team of pioneering researchers have buried thousands of sensors miles deep into the ice at the bottom of the earth, all in an attempt to catch the rare neutrino, from atmospheric and astrophysical sources, crashing into atoms of ice.

Recent theoretical proposals reveal interesting paths: one physicist in the US has calculated that dark matter could arise in a simple generalized quantum theory of gravity.[3] Other theories, like Maxim Pospelov’s, posit bubble-like structures called domain walls which could be detected with a network of magnetometers situated strategically around the world.[4] If such propositions prove feasible new observations about dark matter could be found, inviting input from different disciplines – design being one of them.

Daya Bay Neutrino Facility. China. Pic: Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

A Spaceship for Schrödinger’s Cat: Designing with Dark Matter

Is it feasible to design with dark matter? Is it possible to interact with and even manipulate things we are not able to see? Designing perception might be the first place to start. Artist Neil Harbisson has already pointed to new ways of exploring perception, by wearing a device that allows him to hear colors. Following Maxim Pospelov’s suggestion, we could start by searching for devices that expand our range of perception of the matter spectrum. In the same way that François Dallegret proposed the Astronef 732 Space City in 1963, to study the reactions of younger generations to conditions of extreme crowding in relation to speed, in the future it might be feasible to propose testing human reactions to dark matter.

The first step would be an open research platform linking all the efforts carried out individually by different disciplines. Transdicisplinary workshops and spaces could be established taking advantage of new forms of fabrication already practiced by community biology labs like GenSpace or bioCurious. CERN already has an internship program allowing a 3-month artist residence. This new collective creativity could imagine new devices in order to experiment with matter at a quantum level, from quantum biolasers to models of new interstellar stations constructed with non-carbon materials and quantum displacement by means of teletransportation. These labs could explore methods for building at distant planets with no terrestrial materials and evolving forms of human cyborgs adapted to such conditions.

wholeuniverseWhole Universe. Chris Morris . Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Quantum mechanics theory has demonstrated that the crossroads between physics and consciousness at atomic levels can be applied to all; even the entire universe.[5] It is possible that new unimagined devices collectively created, could lead us to start perceiving and manipulating neutrinos and other subatomic particles, and from there start programming atoms, just as today we are able to program cells. Sculpting dark matter at an atomic scale would lead us to configure new atomic patterns, which could allow us to rewrite laws of physics. And once we’ve developed new habitats in distant planets, we would be able to go there through wormholes excavated in dark matter traveling at entangled states accompanied by Schrödinger’s cat.

[1] We’re talking about transdisciplinary teams dealing with things such as protocells, bacteria, fungi and even DNA cell manipulation and creating of new biological systems from scratch.
[2] A. D. Ernest. A Quantum approch to Dark Matter. http://arxiv.org/pdf/astro-ph/0406139.pdf
[3] Jon Cartwright. Dark matter could come naturally from quantum gravity. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2009/apr/21/dark-matter-could-come-naturally-from-quantum-gravity
[4] Lisa Grossman. Earth may be crashing through dark matter walls. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23094-earth-may-becrashing- through-dark-matter-walls.html [link viewed on February 3th 2013]
[5] Bruce Rosenblum, Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness. Oxford University Press 2011.

— This post originally appeared as an article at Volume 35. “Everything Under Control”. Archis, April 2013.
— Head Pic: Inmaterials. Data between visibility and invisibility. Onformative + Christopher Warnow for Weave Magazine

More resources:
The Cosmic Web. Miguel Angel Aragón Calvo.

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