What is dark matter?

August 14, 2016


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Years ago I read an article by Martin Rees, in which he surveyed the options for what the dark matter of the universe might be. I forget the exact wording, but near the end he said something like “There are so many candidates, it would be quite surprising to find ourselves living in a universe without dark matter.”

I was reminded of this when I saw a Quantum Diaries post by Alex Millar, entitled “Why Dark Matter Exists.” Why do we live in a universe with five times as much dark matter as ordinary matter, anyway? As it turns out, the post was more about explaining all of the wonderful evidence we have that there is so much dark matter. That’s a very respectable question, one that I’ve covered again. The less-respectable (but still interesting to me) question is, Why is the universe like that? Is the existence of dark matter indeed unsurprising, or is it an unusual feature that we should take as an important clue as to the nature of our world?

Generally, physicists love asking these kinds of questions (“why does the universe look this way, rather than that way?”), and yet are terribly sloppy at answering them. Questions about surprise and probability require a measure: a way of assigning, to each set of possibilities, some kind of probability number. Your answer wholly depends on how you assign that measure. If you have a coin, and your probability measure is “it will be heads half the time and tails half the time, ” then getting twenty heads in a row is very surprising. If you have reason to think the coin is loaded, and your measure is “it comes up heads almost every time, ” then twenty heads in a row isn’t surprising at all. Yet physicists love to bat around these questions in reference to the universe itself, without really bothering to justify one measure rather than another.

With respect to dark matter, we’re contemplating a measure over all the various ways the universe could be, including both the laws of physics (which tell us what particles there can be) and the initial conditions (which set the stage for the later evolution). Clearly finding the “right” such measure is pretty much hopeless! But we can try to set up some reasonable considerations, and see where that leads us.

Here are the important facts we know about dark matter:

  • It’s dark. Doesn’t interact with electromagnetism, at least not with anywhere near the strength that ordinary charged particles do.
  • It’s cold. Individual dark matter particles are moving slowly and have been for a while, otherwise they would have damped perturbations in the early universe.
  • There’s a goodly amount of it. About 25% of the energy density of the current universe, compared to only about 5% in the form of ordinary matter.
  • It’s stable, or nearly so. The dark matter particle has to be long-lived, or it would have decayed away a long time ago.
  • It’s dissipationless, or nearly so. Ordinary matter settles down to make galaxies because it can lose energy through collisions and radiation; dark matter doesn’t seem to do that, giving rise to puffy halos rather than thin galactic disks.

None of these properties is, by itself, very hard to satisfy if we’re just inventing new particles. But if we try to be honest — asking “What would expect to see, if we didn’t know what things actually looked like?” — there is a certain amount of tension involved in satisfying them all at once. Let’s take them in turn.

Having a particle be dark isn’t hard at all. All electrically-neutral particles are dark in this sense. Photons, gravitons, neutrinos, neutrons, what have you.

Source: www.preposterousuniverse.com
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