Catch up on articles from the world of science you may have missed from October 2020. This month we take a look at dark matter, and whether any human experience can really be classed as universal.

Dark Matter

For decades scientists have studied ‘dark matter’, the mysterious substance they believe makes up 85% of the universe, made up of particles that do not absorb, reflect or emit light. However, they are yet to fully understand it or what it consists of. In this article for Scientific American, Elizabeth Gibney explains the current state of research on dark matter.  

One candidate for the explanation of dark matter particles is known by scientists as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). In this article, Gibney describes a proposed experiment which would allow WIMPs to reveal themselves as dark matter. The experiment would consist osupersensitive detectors’ that scientists believe would leave WIMPs nowhere to hide.  

Currently, supercooled vats of xenon are used to allow flashes of light to be seen when xenon nuclei react with dark matter particles. The newly proposed supersensitive detectors will increase the levels of sensitivity again, allowing scientists a clearer view of WIMPs. The detectors in development include one called DARWIN, which can hold ten times more xenon than previous experiments. The DARWIN team is currently seeking laboratory space and hopes to be taking data by 2026.  

Obtaining the required amount of xenon is a challenge. Gibney states that DARWIN would require 50 tonnes, close to the world’s annual production of around 70 tonnes. Purchasing would have to take place over several years, with Laura Baudis, a physicist at the University of Zurich, stating that planning for xenon procurement needs to start immediately. Xenon is difficult to obtain in large quantities, partly due to the energy-intensive process required to extract it from the air, and partly because other industries, including the electronics and space industries, also require large amounts.  

Read the full article: Elizabeth Gibney, ‘Last chance for WIMPs: Physicists launch all-out hunt for dark matter candidateScientific American, 8 October 2020.  

Universal Experiences

Which human experiences are universal, and which are a product of our individual cultures? Writing for The Psychologist, Emma Young attempts to unpick the research around this question.  

First, Young looks at personal space and how this differs between cultures. Research has suggested that big differences exist in the physical distance individuals from different cultures prefer to be from acquaintances and from friends. In Argentina, acquaintances tended to get within about 60 cm, while close friends and family were around 15 cm closer. In England, the distance was greater by around 20 cm. In Hungary, the preferred personal distance was almost twice the average measured in Argentina. There were also commonalities across cultures, such as women and older people preferring to keep strangers at a greater distance.  

Second, Young examines the research on emotions differing between cultures. She cites a 2019 paper that studied colexification (a single word describing multiple concepts) across 2,474 languages. The research found variations in emotional concepts across cultures. In some cultures, ‘anger’ was related to envy, whereas in others it was linked more with the words hate or proud’. Some countries associated ‘pity’ and ‘love’, while others did not.  

Finally, Young questions whether values translate across cultures and whether people across the world value the same things. One study from 2001 examined populations across 50 different countries. The study found evidence of agreement on the importance of benevolence, universalism and self-direction, as well as agreement on the relative unimportance of tradition and powerOther research has suggested various personal characteristics, such as gender, age and socioeconomic position, are much more likely to impact values than cultural differences.  

Young concludes by calling for a more culturally diverse and international approach to conducting psychological studies. This would allow for an improved understanding of which human experiences are truly universal.  

Read the full article: Emma Young, ‘Which human experiences are universal?’, The Psychologist, October 2020, vol 33, pp 1819