For decades, scientists have struggled to define the stuff that comprises a quarter of the universe: dark matter. As experiments continue to turn up empty-handed, one team hopes to find dark matter by incorporating the laws that govern subatomic particles—quantum mechanics—with a nascent kind of technology called a quantum computer. It’s what’s brought Fermilab scientist Daniel Bowring, whose background is in accelerator physics, into the quantum computing laboratory of collaborator David Schuster at the University of Chicago. “The first time I went in there, I felt like Charlie entering Willie Wonka’s factory,” he said.

Today, the experiment lab is at Fermilab, just outside Batavia, Illinois, in a high-ceilinged room with all-white walls and a dark tower of physics equipment at the base of a staircase in a warehouse, sectioned off by glass dividers. When I visited Fermilab in January, typical quantum computing components sat in the far wall: a tower of electronics with flashing lights and a table with a computer monitor beside a person-sized silver cylinder hanging from a steel rack, called a dilution refrigerator, which keeps superconducting components functioning at just above absolute zero. The room echoed with a rhythmic squeal as the refrigerator pumped its liquid helium, while Bowring, Fermilab research associate Rakshya Khatiwada, and University of Chicago graduate students Akash Dixit and Ankur Agrawal showed me how it worked. It’s called QISMET, short for Quantum Information Science Metrology, though Bowring hates acronyms.

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Photo: The QISMET experiment. Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum (Gizmodo)