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Did Oak Ridge National Lab scientists discover a parallel universe like in ‘Stranger Things’?

·3 min read

Have scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory discovered a parallel universe like the “Upside Down” in “Stranger Things"?

Comparisons between the alternate universe in the popular Netflix sci-fi horror series and the work of a team lead by physicist Leah Broussard of Oak Ridge National Laboratory began when the team pondered if they could send a theorized particle called mirror neutrons through a “portal.”

The scientists set out to explain the mysterious discrepancy in the lifespan of free neutrons and capture the first observation of dark matter.

Dark matter cannot be seen or detected and is made of material that doesn't absorb, reflect or emit light. We know that it exists because of how it interacts with visible matter through gravity.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Leah Broussard shows a neutron-absorbing "wall" that stops all neutrons but in theory would allow hypothetical mirror neutrons to pass through. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Leah Broussard shows a neutron-absorbing "wall" that stops all neutrons but in theory would allow hypothetical mirror neutrons to pass through. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

But don't worry. "It isn't sinister," assures Broussard. "Over 85% of our universe seems to be invisible," she told Knox News.

"We want to understand it because we are curious what it is, and what it means for how our universe was formed. If there are new ways our visible matter can interact with dark matter, that potentially could have interesting applications."

Neutrons are subatomic particles that make up the nucleus of an atom, along with protons.

Free neutrons live just under 15 minutes before decaying or transitioning into protons, electrons or anti-neutrinos, according to research conducted by ORNL's Frank Gonzalez last year. But lifespan experiments that should have the same results have found that neutrons live about nine seconds longer in a beam than in a magnetic bottle.

The theory is that the neutron transforms into dark matter — sort of an “evil twin” of the neutron — and then back again.

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The ORNL team’s experiment beamed neutrons toward a wall of boron carbide. Neutrons in their regular state would be absorbed by the wall, but, theoretically, the mirror neutrons would pass through the portal … the wall of boron carbide.

And the results were somewhat surprising.

“One hundred percent of the neutrons stopped; zero percent passed through the wall,” Broussard shared in a press release.

So, the “Upside Down” was not opened in Oak Ridge and scientists did not discover an ominous parallel universe on the other side of a portal. In fact, the term “portal” is just a figurative concept used in the physics community.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Matthew Frost and Leah Broussard used a neutron scattering instrument at the Spallation Neutron Source to search for a dark matter twin to the neutron. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Matthew Frost and Leah Broussard used a neutron scattering instrument at the Spallation Neutron Source to search for a dark matter twin to the neutron. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

In "Stranger Things," experiments at the fictional Hawkins National Laboratory inadvertently lead to the opening of a portal to a parallel universe know as the "Upside Down" where a species of monsters live.

"The comparisons (to "Stranger Things") are a lot of fun and it's great to see people so enthusiastic, but we do want to make sure people understand the difference between the science fiction and the science," Broussard said.

Traveling to other dimensions is a fantasy, but the research done by the ORNL scientists does get us one step closer in understanding neutron lifespans and how dark matter works.

Broussard’s team is working toward conducting more sensitive search for the rare possibility of neutrons transforming into dark matter at the High Flux Isotope Reactor in Oak Ridge.

The full title of the ORNL team’s paper on mirror neutrons is “Experimental Search for Neutron to Mirror Neutron Oscillations as an Explanation of the Neutron Lifetime Anomaly.”

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science partly contributed to ORNL’s research and more physical science research can be found at energy.gov/science.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Is the Upside Down in ‘Stranger Things’ real? Scientists find out