OU professor earns Department of Energy grant for dark matter research


Photo courtesy of earthsky.org

Dark matter accounts for 25% of the total energy budget of the universe.

Grace Lovins, Senior Reporter

Assistant professor in OU’s department of physics, Ilias Cholis, Ph. D., has recently been awarded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science to aid in his research on dark matter.

According to Cholis, dark matter — matter we know exists due to its gravitational impact but can not observe directly — accounts for approximately 25% of the total energy budget of the universe. “Normal” matter — matter we can see directly through light emissions — is only responsible for roughly 5% of the total energy budget of the universe.

Cholis attributed his interest in understanding dark matter to research and observations that were being done at the time he was earning his Ph.D. He states the nature of dark matter is a very basic question in particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics and that the astrophysical data that would come in the years following his Ph.D. drew him to the question of dark matter.

His research aims to utilize existing observations from a sequence of experiments to advance theoretical models on how cosmic rays and gamma rays are produced from both known natural mechanisms and from dark matter.

From there, he hopes to have a better understanding of what role dark matter plays in the emission of these particles by getting greater accuracy of how many of these particles are created by known sources and observing how much room is left for dark matter.

Because dark matter takes up a large percentage of the total energy budget in our universe, understanding what it is and where it comes from will offer great insight into the early formation of our universe.

“It is something out there that’s very dominant in the universe that has played a major role in the entire history of the universe,” he said.

“It has played a major role in the formation of galaxies and all these structures that we see in astrophysics — stars, galaxies, larger galaxies, clusters of galaxies — all that. Dark matter played a major role in how those structures were created and how they’ve evolved with time. So, dark matter plays a major role in the storytelling of the universe.”

Scientists are still trying to understand the nature of dark matter, and what form dark matter takes is yet to be determined. Dark matter hasn’t been ruled out to be a type of particle, macroscale object like black holes, or a new field.

“Is it a particle or is it some big object like a black hole for instance? Or is it some very very general kind of field that you cannot even call it exactly a particle? If it is a particle, it would be a new particle, a fundamentally new particle, a particle that we have not detected so far,” Cholis said. “If it’s not a particle and it’s something like an object, then those objects would have been created through a mechanism that would be also fundamentally new in some sense.”

The grant from the Office of Science, worth $60,000, will help Cholis, the principal investigator of the project, facilitate his research and allow for the recruitment of a graduate student and three undergraduate students as well as cover the cost of travel to conferences to present their research.

Cholis states that, because of the grant, he and his research team will be able to conduct research more effectively and faster. It will also allow him to recruit personnel and, at the same time, benefit whoever joins the team with an opportunity to do research in physics within his field.

“I’m very happy to have this grant [which] will facilitate the research in understanding the nature of dark matter with ongoing and future observations and help support research at Oakland University,” Cholis said.