In era of collaboration, individual initiative can still pay off

Eva Emerson
Sandy Schaffer
Even when we don’t say it explicitly, much of the science reported in this magazine is the result of collaboration and teamwork, both small (such as the duo predicting a shrinking range for lemurs) and large (such as the expansive study of the human epigenome, which involved more than 60 teams with upwards of 150 researchers taking part in the analysis alone).

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is no exception. Hundreds of people helped to fund, design, build and transport the cosmic ray detector to its perch aboard the International Space Station. But, as physics writer Andrew Grant describes in “Sam Ting tries to expose dark matter’s mysteries,” the AMS is truly the brainchild of Nobel laureate Samuel Ting, the singular force behind making the detector a reality.

The AMS is a long shot. It senses charged cosmic ray particles that may help answer two of the biggest questions in physics: What is dark matter? What happened to all of the antimatter that should have existed in the early universe? If the AMS gamble pays off, it will provide new clues to the identity of the dark matter, which other cosmic ray experiments have failed to reveal. Studying a surprising surplus of positrons in space, the AMS could deliver data about the mass of a dark matter particle, essential information for explaining its nature. That would make the effort well worth it. It’s less likely that the AMS will catch a primordial antimatter particle. But if it does, scientists might have a better chance of understanding the imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe we see today. That, too, would be a big win for science.

What’s interesting about Ting and the AMS is the risky nature of the enterprise — which, along with its price tag, has attracted its fair share of critics. It truly is an experiment: putting a bucket out in space and seeing what falls in. It may help unravel nature’s secrets or it may not. Yet Ting himself never wavers. He wants to ask the question, collect the data, do the experiment, see what’s out there. And whatever the result, it’s hard to argue with that urge, which is at the heart of the scientific process. 

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