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Will scientists ever prove the existence of dark matter?

Astronomers in the US are setting up an experiment which, if it fails as others have could mark the end of a 30-year-old theory.

Deep underground, in a defunct gold mine in South Dakota, scientists are assembling an array of odd devices: a chamber for holding tonnes of xenon gas; hundreds of light detectors, each capable of pinpointing a single photon; and a vast tank that will be filled with hundreds of gallons of ultra-pure water. The project, the LZ experiment, has a straightforward aim: it is designed to detect particles of an invisible form of matter called dark matter as they drift through space.

It is thought there is five times more dark matter than normal matter in the universe, although it has yet to be detected directly. Finding it would solve one of sciences most baffling mysteries and explain why galaxies are not ripped apart by stars flying off into deep space.

However, many scientists believe time is running out for the hunt, which has lasted 30 years, cost millions of pounds and produced no positive results. The LZ project which is halfway through construction should be sciences last throw of the dice, they say. This generation of detectors should be the last, said astronomer Stacy McGaugh at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. If we dont find anything we should accept we are stuck and need to find a different explanation, perhaps by modifying our theories of gravity, to explain the phenomena we attribute to dark matter.

Other researchers reject this view: “Theory indicates we have a really good chance of finding dark matter particles,” said Chamkaur Ghag, chair of the Dark Matter UK consortium. “This is certainly not the time to talk of giving up.”

The concept of dark matter stems from observations made in the 1970s. Astronomers expected to find that stars rotated more slowly around a galaxy the more distant they were from the galaxys centre, just as distant planets revolve slowly round the Sun. (Outermost Neptune moves round the Sun at a stately 12,000mph; innermost Mercury does so at 107,082mph.)

That prediction was spectacularly undone by observations, however. Stars at a galaxys edge orbit almost as fast as those near its centre. According to theory, they should be hurled into space. So astronomers proposed that invisible dark matter must be providing the extra gravity needed to hold galaxies together. Proposed sources of dark matter include burnt-out stars; clouds of dust and gas; and subatomic particles called Wimps weakly interacting massive particles. All have since been discounted, except Wimps. Many astronomers are now convinced they permeate space and form halos round galaxies to give them the gravitational muscle needed to hold fast-flying stars in place.

Getting close to Wimps has not been easy. Scientists have built increasingly sensitive detectors deeper and deeper underground to protect them from subatomic particles that bombard Earths surface and which would trigger spurious signals. These devices resemble huge Russian dolls: a vast metal tank containing water to provide added protection against incoming stray particles is erected and, within this, a giant sphere of an inert gas such as xenon is suspended. Wimps making it through to the final tank should occasionally strike a xenon nucleus, producing a flash of light that can be pinpointed by electronic detectors.

Despite three decades of effort, this approach has had no success, a failure that is starting to worry some researchers. We are now building detectors containing more and more xenon and which are a million times more sensitive than those we used to hunt Wimps 30 years ago, said astrophysicist Professor David Merritt, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. And still we have found nothing.

Last July, scientists reported that after running their Large Underground Xenon (Lux) experiment for 20 months they had still failed to spot a Wimp. Now an upgraded version of Lux is being built the LZ detector, a US-UK collaboration while other devices in Canada and Italy are set to run searches.

The problem facing Wimp hunters is that as their detectors get ever more sensitive, they will start picking up signals from other weakly interacting particles called neutrinos. Tiny, almost massless, these constantly whizz through our planet and our bodies. Neutrinos are not nearly heavy enough to account for the gravitational abnormalities associated with dark matter but are still likely to play havoc with the next generation of Wimp detectors.

I believe the Wimp hypothesis will be truly dead when we reach that point, said McGaugh. It already has serious problems but if we get to the point where we are picking up all this background interaction, the game is up. You will not be able to spot a thing.

This point is rejected by Ghag. “Yes, occasionally a neutrino will kick a xenon nucleus and produce a result that resembles a Wimp interaction. We will, initially, be in trouble. But as we characterise the collisions we should find ways to differentiate them and concentrate only on those produced by Wimps.”

But there is no guarantee that Wimps if they exist will ever interact with atoms of normal matter. You can imagine a scenario where dark matter particles turn out to be so incredibly weak at interacting with normal matter that our detectors will never see anything, said cosmologist Andrew Pontzen, of University College London.

Indeed, it could transpire that a Wimp is completely incapable of interacting with normal matter. You would then be saying we can only make sense of the universe by proposing a hypothetical particle that we can never detect, said Pontzen. Philosophically that is a highly unsatisfactory situation. You would be saying you cannot prove or disprove a key hypothesis that underpins scientificunderstanding.

However, Pontzen also pointed out that dark matter has proved invaluable in making scientific predictions and should not be dismissed too quickly. Scientists in the late 20th century attempted to predict what the cosmic background radiation left behind by the Big Bang 13 billion years ago might look like. Those who used dark matter in their calculations were found to have got things spectacularly right when we later flew probes to study that radiation background. It shows there was dark matter right at the birth of the universe.

McGaugh is unconvinced. He points to the failure of Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider, used to find the Higgs boson, to produce particles that might hint at the existence of Wimps. It was hailed as the golden test but it has produced nothing, just like the other experiments. Instead, more effort should be directed to developing new theoretical approaches to understanding gravity, he argues. One such theory is known as modified Newtonian dynamics, or Mond. It suggests that variations in the behaviour of gravity could account for the unexpected star speeds. “Such approaches should take precedence if LZ should fail to find dark matter in the next two or three years,” McGaugh said.

Ghag disagrees. “I think it is ridiculous to suggest we stop, he said. Are we just going to say OK, we have no idea what makes up 85% of the universe just because we are finding it all a bit hard? That’s not realistic.”

The uncertain nature of the problem was summed up by Pontzen. “We have been looking for dark matter for so long. Sometimes I think I should get real and admit something is up. On the other hand, the technology is getting better and we are opening up new possibilities of where to find dark matter. Which of these scenarios I feel closest to depends what sort of day I am having.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/31/dark-matter-existence-space-astronomers-us-experiment

Jonathan Raban: I felt pretty happy that I was still alive

The author on his recovery after a stroke and his fears for a dis-United States.

On 11 June 2011, a few days before his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban was sitting with his daughter Julia at home in Seattle. He’d felt foggy and out of sorts since waking. Having reheated a casserole, he looked down to see that, try as he might, he couldn’t make the knife in his right hand touch the food on his plate.

His voice lifts in remembered surprise. It was very strange. I said to Julia: “I think I’m having a stroke.”

He was. A few hours later, Raban was in a hospital in the north of the city, looking at scans of his brain. The stroke was haemorrhagic, and massive: the damage to the right side of his body would be impossible to erase.

Carefully balancing a glass of red wine with his good hand, he gestures down at the wheelchair he now uses. Not quite instantly, but within a very few weeks, I was transformed into an old man. A second later, he concedes gruffly: I did feel pretty happy that I was still alive.

Appropriately for a man best known for his nautical writing, Rabans home feels rather like the upturned hull of a boat, with coffee-coloured redwood beams and a clutter of charts, sailing photos, engravings and mock-ups of the covers of his books. Every so often theres the drone of a seaplane coming in to land.

As soon as he got home from rehab,Raban did what he has always done: he began to write, and to research accounts of other peoples strokes (mostly unreadable, he grunts), English social history, his parents letters; searching for a way to braid the experience with the other skeins of his life.

I remember a doctor came to the rehabilitation ward, about my age, and said: Oh, youre the one who used to be a writer. I told him: Im still a writer, and I intend to write about this.

Raban talks in unhurried, intricately woven sentences, languid vowels barely touched by two decades in the US; it feels a little surreal to encounter him here in the Pacific Northwest. But Seattle, he goes on to explain, is as close to a home as he has found. Born in Norfolk in 1942 and educated at the University of Hull where he became friendly with Philip Larkin he started out as an academic. But as his anthology-cum-memoir For Love and Money (1989) attests, he lasted only a few years, writing fiction and journalism during University of East Anglia vacations and trying to gain a ticket of entrance to the city at the end of the line. He launched himself as a freelance writer in London in 1969, lodging with the poet Robert Lowell and becoming part of the bibulous in-crowd that centred on Ian Hamiltons magazine New Review.

The
The Mississippi river, the subject of Old Glory. Photograph: Macduff Everton/Getty Images

Even the capital seems to have been a temporary halt. Within a few years Raban was flitting around the Middle East, as recorded in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979); then floating down the Mississippi in an open-topped boat (Old Glory, 1981). Soon after that adventure, be bought a larger boat and piloted it around the British Isles. The project became Coasting (1986), which is as sui generis as Rabans other books part memoir, part rite of passage, part discourse on fluid mechanics, part sly satire on British islomania during the Falklands campaign. In the wake of Brexit, it is a salutary read.

Afloat, Raban writes, he found a sea-distance that matched his sense of estrangement from Britain, and the grounding stability that eluded him on land. But the thing that genuinely fascinates him, and makes his prose leap and surge, is water an eerily still North Sea off East Anglia, as calm and full of mercurial colour as a pool of motor oil; a corner of the north Pacific off British Columbia, like a bolt of grey silk, lightly undulating, that seeps its way into his brooding travelogue Passage to Juneau (1999).

The love affair began early, Raban recalls. Water, one way or another, hasbeen a means of escape for me from pretty much infancy. When Isawa river or a pond or a lake, Isawfreedom and solitude. I could behappy in those places, in a way that I couldnt be at home.

Raban has often written about his tussles with his father, an army captain-cum-cleric whose return from the second world war he brusquely resented as a child, and whose dog collar and cassock, with its greasy antique patina like the sheen on a blowfly, represented everything to rebel against. But his interest in literature is something he owes to his mother, who once wrote short stories for womens magazines.

The
The thing that fascinates Jonathan Raban is water. Photograph: Alamy

She taught me to read, which was my one proficiency. My father gets all the attention, but partly thats because he intruded on this relationship with my mother. There is a curt laugh. I harboured the usual fantasy.

It seems not insignificant that his first published work, printed in John Londons Weekly when he was 17, concerned a child whose father is presented with a shattered china dog as a gift after returning from the war. Rabans writing has grown infinitely more sophisticated since then, but its leitmotifs struggles with overbearing authority, a search for refuge in a world that seems aslant have remained.

He insists his arrival in the US, tracked with droll self-scrutiny in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990), wasnt intended to be permanent he retains British citizenship but it seems appropriate that he alighted on the West Coast, the favoured destination for people wanting to slough off old lives and try on new ones for size. One of that books most moving chapters chronicles the time Raban spent with Korean immigrants to Seattle, whose travel-shocked recalibration to wide wide wide America is partly, one senses, his own. The section closes with Raban setting himself up downtown in a former luxury hotel; in his room is a gold-painted desk that had once been used by Elvis, and a name label reading Rainbird on the door.

Marriage to Jean, a dance critic and journalist in the city, swiftly followed; Julia was born not long after that, and is now in her mid-20s. Among the cavalcade of identities Raban has tried out during his 74 years, the one that really seems to fit him is fatherhood, which came late. Its a role he still seems enjoyably astonished by, and which has provided some much-needed anchorage. Though the relationship with Jean came to an end, Julia now lives nearby and the two see each other nearly every day.

Im interested in his thoughts on genre; though his books are filed in the travel sections of bookshops, does he feel himself to be a travel writer? He snorts. I see a travel writer as someone whos sampling other peoples holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something. Bruce Chatwin bridled at being called a travel writer; when Songlines was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook award, he wrote a stiff letter saying that it was impossible for it to be entered because it was most certainly an invented journey. I feel sympathetic to that.

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A protest march against President-elect Donald Trump in Seattle, Washington, 14 November 2016. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Wait didn’t Raban himself win the Thomas Cook? His grin is lizardish. “Twice. But I was hungry for prizes.”

Though travel often features in his non-fiction and the three novels Raban has so far written, he most often uses the verb intransitively, with no obvious destination in mind. I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and travelling not going to get anywhere, but going for the goings sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but its of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.

Though he talks with wit and candour, there is a reserve about him that Englishness, perhaps that seems at odds with the intimate scrutiny of his prose. I ask if he’s ever regretted committing something to the page. The grin reappears. “I want to say, je ne regrette rien. Not much.”

Even in Passage to Juneau, which chronicles in agonising detail the death of his father and the collapse of his marriage to Jean? Even that.

The books only begin to make sense in long recollection, he adds: Writing about journeys, I have to forget the memory in its too-precise form and dive into the experience as if it were happening almost fictionally. Its a getting away from the experience in order to be able to write about it.

I’m curious about what happened to the boat. Oh, it was sold, even before the stroke. I’d written as much as I could about sailing. Also, my appetite for it diminished sharply after 2001. Want to meet Republicans in this part of the world? They all have boats.

It is impossible to avoid the subject of Donald Trump, whose victory Raban had been dreading for months, and which still plainly nauseates him. He’s been rereading Ian Kershaws biography of Hitler, an unlikely but nevertheless effective source of consolation: The consolation comes in the very different state of Weimar Germany and the contemporary US. For all Trump’s blustering authoritarianism, he would run straight into the checks and balances of America’s state and city governments.

Jonathan
Jonathan Raban is best known for hs nautical writing. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Soon after the election, Seattles mayor, Ed Murray, held a press conference to say that the city would remain a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants, and similar statements have been made in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

So he’s optimistic, in a way?

“Trump may well turn out to be more of a danger for the rest of the world than for the dis-United States. But whatever happens is going to be a bloody, bloody mess.”

These days his journeys may be moreimaginative than real, but he fights shy of the idea that I’ve encountered Raban at rest. His thinking is as restless and ambulatory as ever; the wheelchair is another kind of narrative vehicle, a fine place in which to write and read. When we meet he’s halfway through the proofs of a biography of Jan Morris, whom he encountered in Cairo: A proper traveller, he writes in Arabia, atouchruefully.

Most of all, though, he’s mapping out the territory of the new book, and the connections he wants to draw between his early life and the lightning bolt that hit him in 2011. Progress is slower than he’d like; more meandering. There are far too many threads.

He sighs faintly, and reaches for thebottle of red. But then, a friend reminded me over email, there always are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/30/jonathan-raban-author-recovery-stroke-fears-dis-united-states

Out from the shadows: why cruising had a cultural moment in 2016

From an acclaimed novel to an immersive theater experience, the divisive sexual practice made a comeback in art amid heightened anxiety over sex and gender.

On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, I found myself in the dungeon-like basement of a sex club in Manhattan to see a site-specific performance called Adonis Memories. It was an immersive theater experience based upon oral histories with patrons of the Adonis movie theater, the once opulent movie house-turned-gay porn theater located off Times Square in the 70s and 80s. In its day the Adonis epitomized hedonistic group viewing of pornography, the kind of place where gay, queer and straight men could watch hardcore films together. Meanwhile, just offscreen, it was anything goes between the men in the audience, especially in the theaters infamous balcony.

The performance, the brainchild of Alan Bounville, a theater artist and activist, makes the audience contend with the gay art of cruising: the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymously and without exchanging names, often in semi-public indoor spaces (bathrooms, saunas) or outdoors (rest stops, forests). Audience members watched actors re-enact Adonis patrons cruising each other, and made them complicit by having them follow the action around the space, deciding what they watched and what they didnt.

Cruising has been having something a moment in art over the past year or so, though its not as if it hasn’t been depicted in fiction and non-fiction for some time. The act has received heavy criticism for depicting gay life as deviant and inherently dangerous. The late George Michael was outed when he engaged in a lewd act in Beverly Hills in 1998, and Republican senator Larry Craig was lambasted in media in 2007 when he tapped his right foot, which an officer said was recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

The shame was viscerally reinforced in the 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which Al Pacino must go undercover in the world of homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate to investigate a string of murders. As Roger Ebert noted, the films controversial production did not just alarm conservatives but also the New York gay community [which] rose up in protest, worried the film would present a distorted view of gay life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it is, and that, if gays were into violence, attacks on them would somehow be justified. (James Franco was behind a less-seen riff on Friedkins film, Interior. Leather. Bar., in 2013.)

But the art of cruising is not simply about shame and self-hatred; it can also be a space of exploration and connection, as queer literature and art have reflected more recently. Its at the heart of Garth Greenwells much-lauded novel from earlier this year, What Belongs To You, in which an unnamed American narrator becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Mitko he meets in a bathroom in Bulgaria. Everything about their relationship is in the context of sex, and as Mitko and the narrator get to know one another, Greenwell presents gay male life through the prism of their complicated sex lives, moments of intimate partner violence, and the risk of sexuality transmitted disease.

That a book about cruising has been so welcomed by mainstream readers and critics, and featured on best of lists is pretty stunning. As Greenwell discussed in January, its been considered impolite to discuss not just in front of straight people, but also within gay circles until now.

cruising
Al Pacino stars in the 1980 film Cruising, directed by William Friedkin. Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Still, Greenwell contends that cruising spaces can be spaces of exploration and empathy, ripe for artistic and emotional study. And yet, due to its inherent corporeal hedonism that Greenwell and Bounville (and visual artists Prem Sahib and John Walter) have recently depicted, its largely been left untouched as a site of study within mainstream art or literature.

The reasons for this are many. One is that apps like Grindr and Scruff have made cruising possible on your smartphone. Another is that fear of HIV/Aids made the kind of free sexual exchange depicted in the Adonis play extremely dangerous, leading municipalities to shutter many theaters, bathhouses and saunas where cruising flourished. But as Samuel Delaney describes in his beautiful 1999 book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue, cruising was also a victim of gentrification. It was victim to the pressure from real estate developers which led cities like New York to dispatch the NYPD to clean up and crack down on any form of sexual assembly, so that places like Times Square could be rebranded as family-friendly and Disney-esque.

Mayors like Rudy Giuliani were as likely to clean up Times Square of what they saw as the filth of cruising as Republicans were to publicly decry depictions of queer sexuality in art. But what of the left? Why have they protested about such depictions, from Friedkins movie until now?

I think the marriage equality battle was important and its important that we won it, Greenwall said during an onstage interview in March. But he believes that it came at a really great cost. And that cost was a marketing campaign that took queer lives and translated them into values that could be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer people.

So while Greenwell believes our current moment has allowed for a beautiful model of human life, and it should be available to queer people, he also worries about the effects.

I think it forecloses much of the kind of radical potential in queer life. And that radical potential, I think, inheres in spaces like cruising bathrooms and parks, where the categories by which we organize our lives, like race and class, get scrambled by desire, which is a reason why our culture is so terrified by desire, because it scrambles those things, he said.

Cruising inhabits a kind of sexuality that is about seeking fleeting pleasure, allowing for bodily expression to function as free-from commitment in the same vein that same-sex marriage is tethered to commitment. The multimedia artist John Walters addressed the disappearing act by mounting the exhibit Alien Sex Maze, a large-scale installation based on the shapes of cruise mazes, found in sex clubs and gay saunas, during 2015 Pride in London. Walters wanted to raise awareness about HIV and hosted testing onsite to decrease its stigma. He said: “I’m not actively facilitating sex, in his exhibits, I advertise my work on Grindr. If people want to have sex in the spaces I do my work, thats fine. It highlights the fact that you can repurpose any space for sex.”

Then, last fall, British artist Prem Sahib had two shows in London which explictly dealt with cottaging, though the work is so clean and precise, a viewer might not know the reference unless they knew about underground gay culture. As Vice observed, the gay aspect of the work is thrilling and affirmative to anyone whos found themselves cruising in loos, losing themselves on a dance floor (preferably Berghain) or lounging listlessly in an odd sauna.

But one reason it is so surprising to see cruising being taken seriously in theater, gallery art and literature (domains which, no matter how much they may seem to foster the work of gay men, have their gates kept by straight people) is that a fear of possible cruising has been a driving force in American cultural politics. As the writer and scientist Joseph Osmundson wrote, This has been the year that cruising has reached the literary mainstream, but also the year that gay, queer, and especially trans bodies have been made criminal entities simply for existing in public bathrooms. All over the US, the threat of cruising has created a wave of transphobia, just as cruising is getting an airing in art from North Carolina’s notorious HB2 bathroom bill to 11 states suing the federal government after the Obama administration directed US public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. As Osmundson writes, it is in bathrooms that these two trends integration into the mainstream literary canon and a rightwing backlash against gay and trans progress currently meet.

It is no surprise, then, that liberals and conservatives alike have been loth to discuss cruising, particularly as the most heralded (if tacitly secure) civil rights win for LGBT people same-sex marriage is only barely accepted on the condition of queer life being mythologically private and desexualized. Bathrooms have become such a source of sexual anxiety that, according to a large survey, a majority of transgender Americans avoid public restrooms altogether.

Good art, though, should walk us right into the mess of locations of conflict. Thats why it is so rewarding when Bounville, Greenwell, Walters and Sahib take us into these shadowy spaces, where so many gay connections have happened (and still happen). Cruising sites are spaces of gay censure and celebration alike, tense with the possibilities of danger and connection at the same time. They straddle the boundaries of the public and private, the respectable and the reviled. Cruising spaces may never be wholly resolved and thus they remain ripe for art.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/dec/29/cruising-gay-culture-2016

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