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The theory behind dark matter detection dates back to a 1985 paper that considered how a neutrino detector could be repurposed to look for particles of the substance. The study proposed that an incoming dark matter particle could hit an atomic nucleus in the detector and give it a kick—similar to one billiard ball crashing into another. This collision would transfer momentum from the dark matter, walloping the nucleus hard enough to make it spit out an electron or a photon.

At high energies, this picture is essentially fine. Atoms in the detector can be thought of as free particles, discrete and unconnected to one another. At lower energies, however, the picture changes.

“Your detectors are not made of free particles,” says Yonatan (Yoni) Kahn, a dark matter theorist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the first paper. “They’re just made of stuff. And you have to understand the stuff if you want to understand how your detector actually works.”

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Yoni's research asks questions such as “What is the mass of the dark matter particle,” “What other particles that we know of does it interact with,” and “How was it created in the early universe”?