The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer [AMS] finally reported its first scientific results today. AMS, a rather large particle physics detector attached to the International Space Station, is designed to study the very high-energy particles found flying around in outer space. These “cosmic rays” (as they are called, for historical reasons) have been under continuous study since their discovery a century ago, but they are still rather mysterious, and we continue to learn new things about them. They are known to be of various different types — commonly found objects such as photons, electrons, neutrinos, protons, and atomic nuclei, and less common ones like positrons (antiparticles of electrons) and anti-protons. They are known to be produced by a variety of different processes. It is quite possible that some of these high-energy particles come from physical or astronomical processes, perhaps very exciting ones, that we have yet to discover. And AMS is one of a number of experiments designed to help us seek signs of these new phenomena.
The plan to build AMS was hatched in 1995, and the detector was finally launched, after various delays, in 2011, on a specially-ordered Space Shuttle mission. Today, Sam Ting, winner of the Nobel Prize for a co-discovery of the charm quark back in 1974, presented AMS’s first results — a first opportunity to justify all the time, effort and money that went into this project. And? The results look very nice, indicating the AMS experiment is working very well. Yet the conclusions from the results so far are not very dramatic, and, in my opinion, have been significantly over-sold in the press. Despite what you may read, we are no closer to finding dark matter than we were last week. Any claims to the contrary are due to scientists spinning their results (and to reporters who are being spun).