A Small Town Waits for a Dark Matter Gold Rush

Sierra Ward: James 5:7-8: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Bob Bratcher: Silver Star has been here since 1936. It is, once Homestake closed, the oldest continuously operating business in town. I bought it in August 2001. Homestake was almost closed at that point. They took their last load of gold out in December of 2001. So I knew the business was probably at the bottom.

Robyn Varland: We had a lot of banks and a lot of office spaces that were empty for years. And we had a lot of people because they were employed at Homestake. So when that went away, a lot of people had to move. And that, that was tough.

Debbie Vardiman: A lot of people didn’t think the mine needed to be closed. They thought it was, uh, political. It wasn’t necessarily because the gold was gone.

Bratcher: The National Science Foundation was going to come in and build this super duper laboratory. Everybody was really excited about it.

Vardiman: They anticipated it to bring back the glory days of when it was a mining company again. And bring back the financial security for this region.

Varland: It was hope, and that’s all that meant. Hope. That the lights were going to come on in our town that we hadn’t seen in a very long time.

Bratcher: It took about, probably 15 years before we really started seeing an influx, I guess you would say, of people and money.

Ward: There was this perception that the lab would come and save us. I don’t want to be really derogatory, but it feels sometimes like they think they’re doing super important work. And that the things that have happened here with mining and with our history are embarrassing. And they don’t want to have anything to do with that history. And they don’t understand the people that are here as a result of that history.

And when there is no relationship, like, distrust abounds.

Varland: Well, it’s funny. When I first started there, you know, when you live here your whole life, everybody knows you. So, I would go to the grocery store, and the funnest thing is, people would go, they’d whisper, and they’d go, “What are they like?” And I’d go, and then I found myself whispering, I’d go, “Well, they’re just like us.”

Like I’ve been in the line at Walmart and she said, “Oh my God, we’re all going to get blown up.” And she’s saying it real loud. And I’m like, “Oh God, no, no.” And but you know what? She believed that. And that was in the very beginning. And, you know, you see these big trucks go up Mill Street. They say liquid nitrogen. You know, people, that scares people.

David Woodward: To perform this search, we’re looking for something that’s very rare. And so we have to really isolate ourselves from all possible sources of background contamination. We’re a mile underground with our experiment. By going underground we can get away from all of the noise that’s on the surface. A place where you have the least number of backgrounds from things that could obscure the science signal.

It is really the quietest place on Earth.

Imagine a cue ball hitting another one. We’re just waiting for the dark matter particles to come and bump into our detector and produce a signal that is distinct that we can differentiate from all of the other things that it’s seeing. And I very much think it would be like striking gold.

The nature of the science, you could be working for many years and be unsuccessful. It’s very abstract to many people.

Bratcher: I guess most of the universe is made up of dark matter, yet you can’t see it. It’s crazy to understand for me, you know, because there’s like billions of them passing through us right now. And like, “Well, we haven’t found any, but that’s, that’s a good thing.” And I’m like, “How, how do you search for something and not find it yet that’s successful?”

Ward: I believe that God created the universe. But when I tell someone I believe in intelligent design, who thinks of themselves as a scientist, there’s that attitude like, “Ugh, you’re so dumb.” It’s like we work in silos, and that’s just kind of sad. And it’s like they’re not interested in getting out of that silo.

And we don’t have any access to them. So we don’t have any access to the lab, we don’t have any access to go down and see what they’re doing. It depends entirely on them bringing that to us. And because they don’t have any interest in bringing that to us, like, that relationship is never made.

David Vardiman: Well, the overall footprint of the Homestake workings are about five miles north-south, about three miles east-west, and about a mile and a half vertically deep. If you were able to physically take all of those workings and put it on the surface, it would be the world’s largest manmade structure. But because it’s underground, it’s very underappreciated.

I spent my entire career exploring for and developing and producing from the world’s resources of ore bodies, primarily precious metals – gold, silver. Then I get together with physicists and they say, “Well, David, you just learned the, you just jumped through the entire thick book to the last chapter. Did you ever stop to think where the gold and silver really came from to begin with? That then somehow ends up here, where David can go dig out underneath a rock and look for it locally.”

The scientists are incredibly patient folks. They learn as much from sometimes failing as they do by being successful. They get excited about just the opportunity to work in this environment. Listening quiet to the universe. And waiting for that information that will tell whether they guessed right, or whether they need to go to a different solution.

Woodward: We think that dark matter is out there, and we give it a name, but it could be many things. As scientists, we can afford to be somewhat patient, and that’s really necessary for the science that we want to achieve. We have time to look for our gold. But it really is a waiting game at this point. Can we see a dark matter particle bump into our detector – whether it happens or not, that’s out of our control.

You know, it could be that the way that we are trying to find dark matter will be unsuccessful.

There’s an element of needing to accept that and be okay with that. And I think for the lab and for Lead, there’s that same process. I don’t know if the lab will employ as many people as Homestake used to, but it’s also fairly in its infancy. An understanding of what dark matter is, I think is the best way to try and help grow Lead and be something that can be more sustaining to the local community.

Vardiman: Any change, any transition in a community takes some time to basically let the past be just that, and to let the future begin to make its own story.

Ward: The lab is not what we hoped. It isn’t the savior. It’s not the redemption of Lead. But the redemption will come in some other way. I think it’s human nature that we’re waiting for something. And that is kind of a hard place to be in. Because really all of life is a waiting space. What do we make out of that waiting?

Bratcher: Well, my body is telling me it’s getting close to retirement time. This business definitely takes a toll on you. My biggest fear is flipping burgers back there in the kitchen and having a heart attack, you know, people say, “Well, he died flipping burgers.” But hopefully I can just get enough money for this place that I can call it quits.

I think more good things will come, but I’m also realistic enough to know that you can’t sit here forever waiting for it. At some point, you got to say, “I’m done.”