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About A Week: A Search For The Secret Of The Universe

In the bowels of the deepest pit in England a search is going on for the secret of the universe, as Peter Hinchliffe reveals.

A tiny English fishing village which introduced one of the world’s greatest navigators to the sea is now linked to the search for an answer to the universe’s greatest secret.

Captain James Cook worked as a shop assistant in Staithes on the Yorkshire coast when he was 16.

Cook went on to become a Royal Navy officer, criss-crossing the oceans, surveying and mapping islands and coastlines.

Now, in the depths of a phosphate mine which is within sight of Staithes, scientists are investigating the nature of “dark matter’’.

Observations on how galaxies behave suggest that dark matter makes up most of the material in the universe. When we look up into the clear night skies the stars and galaxies that we see probably represent no more than one percent of the material that is out there in space.

Scientists appreciate that dark matter cannot be like ordinary gas and dust. If it were, it would have been converted into huge quantities of chemical elements. Modern techniques enable observers to check the chemical composition of stars – and the huge quantities of elements to explain dark matter are not there.

Particle physicists propose some new form of matter. In recent decades various names and properties have been ascribed to this theoretical matter. The latest of these is Wimps – Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles.

These are thought to be relatively hefty particles, weighing about 10 to 1,000 times as much as a proton, and interacting only weakly with matter. If this is so, dark matter will not be easy to detect.

The Boulby experiment is designed to do so. In a laboratory in the mine, 1,100 metres below the surface, there is a large crystal of sodium iodide, a compound predicted to give off a flash of light whenever a Wimp passes through it.

If the crystal were on the Earth’s surface, it would flash to record cosmic rays, therefore it is “buried’’ beneath thousands of feet of rock.

A consortium of astrophysicists and particle physicists, the UK Dark Matter Collaboration, is conducting the search for the mystery particles.

Boulby is one of the world’s deepest working mines. Its tunnels extend beneath the North Sea.

Explorer and navigator Captain James Cook lived in Staithes at a time when astronomers and scientists were taking their first stumbling steps towards an understanding of the universe.

He went to live in the village in 1744, when he was 16, working in a shop. Because of the bad roads in those days the best method of travelling the length of Britain was by sea, and young James quickly became attracted to a life on the waves, rather than behind a shop counter.

After two years in Staithes he moved on to the nearby town of Whitby, at one time the world’s leading whaling port. He served in the merchant navy, joining the Royal Navy in 1755 and rising to the rank of Captain.

He was the first to map Newfoundland. In three voyages to the Pacific Ocean he was the first European to map the eastern coastline of Australia and circumnavigate New Zealand.

James Cook died in 1779 in a fight with Hawaiians during his third voyage of exploration to the Pacific.

One of my uncles, a Methodist minister, was in charge of a church in Staithes during the first half of last century, when the village hosted a thriving fishing industry.

Eighty fishing cobles then put out to sea from its sheltered harbour, guarded by high cliffs and long breakwaters. A mile to the north is Boulby cliff, the highest in England.

Staithes is now a village of tourists and holidaymakers, rather than fishermen. Many of its stone cottages are owned by city dwellers. In winter the place is a “ghost’’ village.

Despite having a mine on its doorstep Staithes remains an outstandingly beautiful place. Thousands of artists have painted and drawn its narrow winds and lanes.

The village and the mine are in the North York Moors National Park, which is dedicated to maintaining the area’s natural wonders.

Just down the coast is another picturesque former fishing village, Runswick Bay, where I spent happy family holidays, staying in what was formerly a fisherman’s cottage.

Runswick, with its golden sands, fossil-filled pools and dramatic setting, was recently judged to have the UK’s best beach for beachcombing. Powerful North Sea waves wash in all manner of “treasures’’.

At low tide life in miniature can be observed in rock pools, and ammonite fossils can be found. For years, while manning the news desk of a busy daily newspaper, I used an ammonite found at Runswick as a paperweight.

For more than 100 years Runswick, which has a boat club with more than 70 members, had is own lifeboat. In 1978, as part of a national modernisation plan to have fewer but faster boats, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution closed the Runswick station. The Runswick Bay Rescue Boat Association was set up in 1982 to finance and run their own boat.

In 1901 the Runswick life boat put out in a gale, launched and manned by women whose fishermen husbands – the regular lifeboat crew – had been caught at sea by a sudden storm.

Yorkshire’s coast is well worth a visit – or a hundred visits – even if you are not trying to solve the riddle of the universe.


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