Spotlight on Gilles Gerbier

Arrival of new Canada Excellence Research Chair establishes Queen’s University as major player in search for dark matter

With the announcement of Gilles Gerbier as the university’s new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Particle Astrophysics, Queen’s University has taken a significant step in the hunt for dark matter—that elusive ingredient comprising some 80 per cent of the universe’s mass.

Gerbier, who has moved to Queen’s from the French Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay, France, has an outstanding international reputation as a physicist, innovative researcher, and accomplished leader of large-scale astroparticle physics programs. His arrival galvanizes the already strong Queen’s program, and his extensive connections will pave the way for collaborations with European and Chinese research programs.

“This is a real coup for us,” says Steven Liss, vice-principal (Research) at Queen’s University. “Dr. Gerbier is not only a perfect match for the university’s research interests, he is an exceptional leader and mentor, and will be a catalyst for future world-leading collaborations.”

 Dr. Gerbier is not only a perfect match for the university’s research interests, he is an exceptional leader and mentor, and will be a catalyst for future world-leading collaborations. 

Gerbier will lead many of his team’s experiments at SNOLAB—an underground laboratory located two kilometres below the surface in the Vale Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ontario, and specializing in neutrino and dark matter physics. The opportunity to have significant access to what Gerbier terms “the world’s premier facility for astroparticle physics” proved too good for him to pass up.

“I’m very excited to work at SNOLAB,” he says. “It is a unique site—the world’s deepest laboratory—and it is operated as a clean room. The technicians, engineers and scientists working there are highly skilled, and the resources, availability and equipment are second-to-none. Once I found out that CERC funding was in place for the chair at Queen’s, moving to Canada was a straightforward decision to make.”

“This appointment is wonderful for Queen’s and for Canada, and shows again that Canada is becoming a destination of choice for the world’s best researchers,” says Liss.

Gerbier will focus his research on the identification of dark matter, a mystery that has puzzled scientists for decades. According to the current hypothesis, dark matter has to exist to explain gravitational effects that appear to be the result of invisible mass. Planets and stars move inside galaxies, but not at the speed you would expect by taking into account known matter only. Something has to explain the discrepancy. Gerbier is on a mission to prove what it is.

“There are two projects I want to work on specifically with this new chair,” he says. “The first is a large experiment bringing together European and North American researchers at SNOLAB to detect dark matter, while the second will involve a new detector—a spherical gaseous detector—to give us more insight into very light particles.”

The first of the projects will build on an existing Queen’s SNOLAB project, the SuperCDMS (Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search), which uses state-of-the-art cryogenic germanium detectors to look for dark matter particles, also known as “weakly interacting massive particles,” or “WIMPs.” Finding these could solve the dark matter problem, and could revolutionize particle physics and cosmology.

“Working at SNOLAB protects our experiments from cosmogenic events and consequently reduces interference. To search for dark matter, we have to cool detectors to extremely low temperatures to detect the very small energies deposited by the collisions of dark matter particles with the germanium. The deeper you are, the fewer ‘parasites’ there are mimicking the effects of dark matter.”

Gerbier previously headed up the European EURECA (European Underground Rare Event Calorimeter Array) project, and the future merging of the SuperCDMS and EURECA experiments could produce a facility with a much greater physics potential.

Gerbier’s second project will involve the development, construction and running of a novel gas detector several metres in diameter. The spherical gaseous detector would be the first of its kind in the world and would be able to detect extremely tiny impacts from very light dark matter particles.

Gerbier says the detector’s applications could include “safe and easy-to-use monitoring of nuclear reactors, low-level neutron spectroscopy, and gamma spectroscopy in harsh environments.”

“It is a new field and a new technological challenge—one I am looking forward to immensely,” he says. “The Canada Excellence Research Chair will give me a chance to get more people involved and interested in this type of research.”

“There is no doubt that the Gerbier research team will attract highly qualified recruits,” says Liss, “given the innovative experimental program he plans for his team, the opportunity to work in SNOLAB, and the possibility of real groundbreaking results.”