University of Melbourne Magazine

Heart of darkness

  • Yet dark matter could be just the tip of the research iceberg for the laboratory, according to Barberio. A lot of useful nuclear physics research is conducted in a low-radiation environment, she says. And then there’s biology. “Already there are researchers from Australian universities at Gran Sasso studying the effect of low radioactivity on cells, particularly cancer cells. Then there are studies on general relativity, on underground micro-organisms and on chemistry and materials science.”

    There seems real confidence at the mine and in the local community that the laboratory will go ahead. Things are already gearing up. Matteo Volpi’s initial job is to monitor the environmental background radiation, to check that it conforms to the Gran Sasso protocol. A kilometre down, there are two potential sources of radiation – local radioactivity and the occasional intruding cosmic ray. Both have to be taken into account in the design and shielding of the new laboratory.

    Volpi has visited each week or fortnight to take measurements underground. In his orange overalls, goggles and gumboots, he could be taken for any other miner, if it weren’t for the metre-long dreadlocks cascading down his back. He’s clearly made an impression on the mine workers. Recently, courtesy of an equipment malfunction, he had to take a few weeks’ break. When he returned, they greeted him like a colleague back from holiday. They are incessantly interested in what he is doing.

    What would secure the project is a federal grant to match what the Victorian government has already promised. So Mayor Murray Emerson is off to Canberra to plead the case. He has become an enthusiast, to the extent that he has even been talking to Year 7 pupils at the local secondary college about the opportunities brought by the project. “We hope one day that some of our local kids will end up as professors,” he says. “At the very least, it may encourage them to stay at school and consider doing science.”

    And he’s also impressed by the possibility of the laboratory becoming a tourist drawcard. About 8,000 people a year visit Gran Sasso. “It turns over $1.5 million annually in tourism alone,” he says. “People ring up and book three years in advance to go there.”

    He’s already aware how much the project has captured the imagination of his colleagues in local government. Rarely does he go to a meeting of mayors these days without someone sidling up to him and asking: “How’s that underground lab coming along?”