Barry professor joins international team exploring frontiers of astrophysics

Barry professor joins international team exploring frontiers of astrophysics

'Dark matters' of science

By Jim Davis

What is dark matter -- that mysterious stuff believed to make up most of the universe? The answer has evaded scientists for years; but a new project, led by several universities including Barry, has a shot at finding out.

The quest involves finding a new kind of subatomic particle called the axion, says Maurizio Giannotti, associate professor of physics at Barry.  His studies in astrophysics suggest the axion might exist.

“It could be the first evidence of new physics,” Giannotti says.

“It could revolutionize the way we think about astrophysics and cosmology.”

The team, called the International Axion Observatory (, plans to build a giant device to hunt the elusive particle. The planned axion helioscope will resemble a telescope more than 65 feet long. Inside it will be a superconducting circular magnet meant to convert solar axions to X-rays, which the device can then detect.

MIT and Columbia University would produce the optical parts of the observatory, with Giannotti working on clarifying the assertion that stellar cooling is related to axions. The IAXO team is asking the National Science Foundation for about $3 million for its part in the six-year project.

In October, Giannotti gave a paper at the international CERN laboratory in France and Switzerland, on cooling anomalies among several categories of stars. His paper surveyed several possible causes, but concluded that axions provide the best explanation.

“Since the early 1990s, we've seen some stars cooling faster than expected,” he says.

“Maybe axions are created inside stars and then they're carrying energy away.”

Giannotti has built a long record in the hunt for axions, going back two decades. It was his study of cooling stars, on which he presented a paper at CERN in the summer of 2014 that caught the attention of the IAXO team. He was asked to join IAXO that November; he eagerly accepted.

“I was very happy that people recognized my name and research,” he says. “This is a beautiful and very interesting project. I am honored to participate in it.”

CERN is best known for its biggest machine: the Large Hadron Collider, which in 2012 revealed the long-expected existence of the Higgs boson, dubbed the “God particle” for its ability to impart mass to other particles.

Giannotti talks fondly of CERN's campus-like setting, where scientists not only work but hike, bike and ski.

“It's even stimulating at the coffee shop,” Giannotti says. “You have young people from foreign countries, always talking. It’s inspiring.”

The research excites Giannotti for another, surprising reason: the risk of failure.

“It’s nice to work on things that are not even necessarily true. Like climbing a mountain and looking for some little space to put your fingers.”

His work also blends with his interest in theology and philosophy, Giannotti says.

“One thing physics does is open your mind a lot. I understand that we don’t understand everything. And probably can’t.”