THE DARK MATTER SLEUTH: CAN SHE SOLVE THE GREATEST MYSTERY IN PHYSICS?
Tracy Slatyer picked up A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s seminal book on the origins of the universe, after reading a review that called it fascinating yet dense and cited a survey reporting that most people couldn’t get past page 30 or so. Slatyer finished the book in two weeks. She was 12 years old. Today Slatyer is a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bringing the same drive and thoroughness to her research on dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to make up approximately 80 percent of the matter in the universe — even if scientists have not been able to directly observe it. That’s why Slatyer hunts for signals of dark matter, meticulously searching often messy telescope data for the signature glow the particles that compose dark matter emit when they annihilate — that is, collide with each other and decay. Her work could bring physicists closer to detecting dark matter signals by better enabling them to tease these signals apart from similar ones produced by stars and other objects in the cosmos.