The exquisite role of dark matter


Click to reach Priyamvada Natarajan’s essay and video

It is definitely the golden age in cosmology because of this unique confluence of ideas and instruments. We live in a very peculiar universe—one that is dominated by dark matter and dark energy—the true nature of both of these remains elusive. Dark matter does not emit radiation in any wavelength and its presence is inferred by its gravitational influence on the motions of stars and gas in its vicinity. Dark Energy, discovered in 1998, meanwhile is believed to be powering the accelerated expansion of the universe. Despite not knowing what the dark matter particle is or what dark energy really is, we still have a very successful theory of how galaxies form and evolve in a universe with these mysterious and invisible dominant components.

Technology has made possible the testing of our cosmological theories at a level that was unprecedented before. All of these experiments have delivered very exciting results, even if they’re null results. For example, the LHC, with the discovery of the Higgs, has given us a lot more comfort in the standard model. The Planck and WMAP satellites probing the leftover hiss from the Big Bang—the cosmic microwave background radiation—have shown us that our theoretical understanding of how the early fluctuations in the universe grew and formed the late universe that we see is pretty secure. Our current theory, despite the embarrassing gap of not knowing the true nature of dark matter or dark energy, has been tested to a pretty high degree of precision.

It’s also consequential that the dark matter direct detection experiments have not found anything. That’s interesting too, because that’s telling us that all these experiments are reaching the limits of their sensitivity, what they were planned for, and they’re still not finding anything. This suggests paradoxically that while the overall theory might be consistent with observational data, something is still fundamentally off and possibly awry in our understanding.

The challenge in the next decade is to figure out which old pieces don’t fit. Is there a pattern that emerges that would tell us, is it a fundamentally new theory of gravity that’s needed, or is it a complete rethink of some aspects of particle physics that are needed? Those are the big open questions.

PRIYAMVADA NATARAJAN is a professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, whose research is focused on exotica in the universe—dark matter, dark energy, and black holes.

Click here to get to her essay + a half-hour video.

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