LZ is a merger of two previous experiments compelled to grow still bigger in the never-ending search for dark matter. It contains “seven active tonnes of liquid xenon,” which is an absurd amount, being a substantial fraction of the entire terrestrial supply. It all has to be super-cooled to near absolute zero and filtered of all contaminants that might include naturally radioactive isotopes that might mimic the sought-after signal of dark matter scattering off of xenon nuclei. It is a technological tour de force.
The technology is really fantastic. The experimentalists have accomplished amazing things in building these detectors. They have accomplished the target sensitivity, and then some. If WIMPs existed, they should have found them by now.
WIMPs have not been discovered. As the experiments have improved, the theorists have been obliged to repeatedly move the goalposts. The original (1980s) expectation for the interaction cross-section was 10-39 cm2. That was quickly excluded, but more careful (1990s) calculation suggested perhaps more like 10-42 cm2. This was also excluded experimentally. By the late 2000s, the “prediction” had migrated to 10-46 cm2. This has also now been excluded, so the goalposts have been moved to 10-48 cm2. This migration has been driven entirely by the data; there is nothing miraculous about a WIMP with this cross section.
As remarkable a technological accomplishment as experiments like LZ are, they are becoming the definition of insanity: repeating the same action but expecting a different result.
For comparison, consider the LIGO detection of gravitational waves. A large team of scientists worked unspeakably hard to achieve the detection of a tiny effect. It took 40 years of failure before success was obtained. Until that point, it seemed much the same: repeating the same action but expecting a different result.
Except it wasn’t, because there was a clear expectation for the sensitivity that was required to detect gravitational waves. Once that sensitivity was achieved, they were detected. It wasn’t that simple of course, but close enough for our purposes: it took a long time to get where they were going, but they achieved success once they got there. Having a clear prediction is essential.
In the case of WIMP searches, there was also a clear prediction. The required sensitivity was achieved – long ago. Nothing was found, so the goalposts were moved – by a lot. Then the new required sensitivity was achieved, still without detection. Repeatedly.
It always makes sense to look harder for something you expect if at first you don’t succeed. But at some point, you have to give up: you ain’t gonna find it. This is disappointing, but we’ve all experienced this kind of disappointment at some point in our lives. The tricky part is deciding when to give up.
In science, the point to give up is when your hypothesis is falsified. The original WIMP hypothesis was falsified a long time ago. We keep it on life support with modifications, often obfuscating (to our students and to ourselves) that the WIMPs we’re talking about today are no longer the WIMPs we originally conceived.
I sometimes like to imagine the thought experiment of sending some of the more zealous WIMP advocates back in time to talk to their younger selves. What would they say? How would they respond to themselves? These are not people who like to be contradicted by anyone, even themselves, so I suspect it would go something like
Old scientist: “Hey, kid – I’m future you. This experiment you’re about to spend your life working on won’t detect what you’re looking for.”
Young scientist: “Uh huh. You say you’re me from the future, Mr. Credibility? Tell me: at what point do I go senile, you doddering old fool?”
Old scientist: “You don’t. It just won’t work out the way you think. On top of dark matter, there’s also dark energy…”
Young scientist: “What the heck is dark energy, you drooling crackpot?”
Old scientist: “The cosmological constant.”
Young scientist: “The cosmological constant! You can’t expect people to take you seriously talking about that rubbish. GTFO.”
That’s the polite version that doesn’t end in fisticuffs. It’s easy to imagine this conversation going south much faster. I know that if 1993 me had received a visit from 1998 me telling me that in five years I would have come to doubt WIMPs, and also would have demonstrated that the answer to the missing mass problem might not be dark matter at all, I… would not have taken it well.
That’s why predictions are important in science. They tell us when to change our mind. When to stop what we’re doing because it’s not working. When to admit that we were wrong, and maybe consider something else. Maybe that something else won’t prove correct. Maybe the next ten something elses won’t. But we’ll never find out if we won’t let go of the first wrong thing.