Physicist seeks WIMPs

Yale professor Dan McKinsey has received a $625,000 grant to search for WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles, that is.

McKinsey, a professor in the physics department and head of the McKinsey Group at Yale University, received the Packard Fellowship, a five-year grant of $625,000 from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, to carry out his research in the field of particle physics, specifically in the detection of particles difficult to locate using current methods.

“There could be a particle called the WIMP — and various evidence from astrophysics and particle physics points to the existence of this particle, but they haven’t been detected yet,” McKinsey said.

McKinsey is the latest in a series of 12 Yale professors to receive the Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. He said he plans to use the Packard Fellowship’s funds to develop a new kind of low-radiation instrument which would use liquid noble gasses such as neon to detect and analyze hard-to-find cosmic particles including the WIMPs that compose dark matter.

“The idea is that the dark matter particle passes through the detector,” said James Nikkel, a postdoctoral fellow working with McKinsey. “Every once in a while, one of them will hit a neon atom, and when this happens you will get ionization, and you’ll get light in the detector, and we detect the light.”

Scientists now believe dark matter constitutes most of the universe.

“There’s a conundrum,” McKinsey said. “You look at the velocity of the stars going around the Milky Way, and you count up how much mass is in the Milky Way — it’s spinning too fast. It should fly apart. That’s direct evidence that there’s a lot of missing matter that we don’t know about.”

McKinsey said he hopes to study particles such as neutrinos, which were first discovered in the 1960s and have a remarkable ability to pass through objects without touching them. McKinsey’s detector may also have applications to gamma ray and fast neutron detection, which are increasingly important in homeland security, he said.

Physics Department chairman Ramamurti Shankar said that he was “very delighted” at McKinsey’s reception of the award, and added that McKinsey owes him an ice cream cone in return for Shankar’s help editing the proposal.

“Even before we hired Dan, I felt he was the kind of guy who could be nominated and win because of the kinds of things he does,” Shankar said. “The fact that that actually happened is wonderful.”