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Dark Matter

Don Lincoln

Citation: The Physics Teacher 51, 134 (2013); doi: 10.1119/1.4792003

View online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.4792003
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Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers

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Dark Matter
Don Lincoln, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL

ts a dark, dark universe out there, and I dont mean where, from the mentioned motion of clusters of galaxies and
because the night sky is black. After all, once you leave gravitational lensing, to objects like NGC 4555, an elliptical
the shadow of the Earth and get out into space, youre galaxy surrounded by hydrogen gas heated to 10,000,000 K.
surrounded by countless lights glittering everywhere you The temperature of this gas is so high that it should have dis-
look. But for all of Sagans billions and billions of stars and persed, were it not for something holding it in. However, the
galaxies, its a jaw-dropping fact that the ordinary kind of evidence for dark matter that is simplest for an introductory
matter like that which makes up you and me is but 5% of the physics student to understand is the rotation curves of galax-
energy budget of the universe. The glittering spectacle of the ies. Rotation curves are simply plots of the orbital velocity of
heavens is a rather thin icing on a very large and dark cake. stars as a function of their distance from the galactic center.
According to the most current estimates, ordinary matter Astronomers can exploit the Doppler shift to measure
makes up merely 4.6% of the universe, with a form of mat- the velocity of stars in galaxies. Further, they can use known
ter called dark matter being 22.7%. An even more esoteric relationships between the brightness and color of stars to the
component of the cosmos is called dark energy and it com- stars mass to work out the distribution of the light-emitting
prises a whopping 72.8% of the energy and matter budget of (i.e., visible) mass in the galaxy. By combining simple Newto-
the universe. This article describes our current understand- nian principles, it is easy to work out the dominant features
ing of dark matter and why so many astronomers are confi- expected to be present in the rotation curve. The calculation
dent that it exists. One of the various strands of evidence for begins by identifying gravity as the centripetal force. We then
the existence of dark matter is also of pedagogical interest, insert the standard formulae for these terms:
as it is perhaps unique in being a conundrum on the cosmic
frontier that is easily understood using only algebra-based (1)
introductory physics.
The first inkling astronomers had that perhaps their and with some manipulation, we get
telescopes were not telling the entire story came not long
after a publication in 1925 by Edwin Hubble. Combining the (2)
observations of others along with his own, Hubble made the
scientific community aware of the existence of other galaxies, Mattractive is the amount of the galaxys mass that attracts
with the implicit consequence that we lived in a galaxy of our the star to move in its orbit. Outside the galaxy, this is trivial;
ownthe Milky Way galaxy. The realization that the Milky Mattractive= Mgalaxy . However, inside the galaxy, not all of
Way was a compact, gravitationally bound conglomeration the galaxys mass plays a role in determining the motion of
of stars led theorist Bertil Lindblad and observer Jan Oort (of the stars. The distribution of mass within a typical galaxy is
Oort cloud fame) to compare Newtonian predictions of the complex, necessitating that we turn to numerical techniques.
rotation of the Milky Way with observations. The implications However, as an illustration we can treat the galaxy as a sphere
were clear. The Milky Way was rotating faster than predicted of uniform density. By employing Newtons shell theorem,
using Newtonian principles and the observed amount of mat- which is the same logic familiar to introductory students in
ter. Linblad and Oorts work led Oort to state in 1932 that their exploration of Gauss law, one sees that the mass that at-
there seemed to be two to three times more mass in the Milky tracts a star is the mass inside a sphere of radius equal to the
Way than could be observed. Of course, this was the 1920s distance between the center of the galaxy and the star. Thus,
and 1930s, and a data/theory agreement within a factor of two inside the galaxy, Mattractive= Mgalaxy (r/Rgalaxy)3. By insert-
was actually pretty good. It was quite possible that the sim- ing this term into Eq. (2), we are able to predict the rotation
plest explanation (observational error) was the correct one. curve of stars inside this simplified galaxy.
In 1933, astronomer Fritz Zwicky studied the Coma
cluster of galaxies and ascertained that the galaxies in the
outskirts of the cluster were moving far too fast to remain . (3)
gravitationally bound to the cluster core. This discrepancy
was much larger than Oorts, with the luminous mass able
to account for only 10% of the gravity necessary to describe Thus we see that the orbital velocity of a star rises linearly
the motion of these galaxies. The plot thickened. Subsequent as a function of radius within the body of the galaxy and then
attempts to measure the mass of galaxies using gravitational falls as the inverse of the square root of the radius outside
lensing added to the tension. Zwicky invented the term dark of the mass distribution of the galaxy. While physical gal-
matter to describe this invisible component of the cosmos. axies have a more complex mass distribution than the one
In the intervening decades, there have been many observa- used here, the actual rotation curves have similar features,
tions1 supporting the contention that dark matter is every- as shown in Fig. 1. Near the center of the galaxy, the veloc-

134 The Physics Teacher Vol. 51, March 2013 DOI: 10.1119/1.4792003

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By invoking the standard relationship between centripetal
acceleration and velocity, a = v2/r, and making the appropri-
ate substitutions into Eq. (1), we find that MOND predicts
that at large orbital radii, which is independent
of the radius. At smaller radii, MOND makes the same pre-
dictions as traditional Newtonian theory. This behavior is
consistent with observations. Of course, this agreement is by
There are many valid criticisms of the MOND theory.
First, the form of the function m(a/a0) is known only in its
limiting cases. Another criticism of the simplified version
Fig. 1. Rotation curves of thousands of galaxies tell the same tale. given in Eq. (4) is that it conserves neither energy nor mo-
Inside the galaxy, data and theory are in agreement. However, in
the outskirts of the galaxy, stars are observed to orbit with nearly
mentum. This serious deficiency was overcome in a 1984
constant velocity. This is in striking contrast with predictions. paper by Milgrom and Jakob Bekenstein, in which a Lagrang-
(Figure adapted from Ref. 2.) ian formulation was employed. Another criticism of the early
versions of MOND is that it is not a relativistic theory. Subse-
ity is roughly proportional to the orbital radius, and outside quent work, including some by Bekenstein, has found various
the galaxy the velocity decreases, since the increased radius ways to marry MOND with relativity.
incorporates no new mass but does decrease the force due The proof of a theory is in how well it works. So how
to gravity. In the outskirts of the galaxy, the rotation curve is well does MOND work? For the question of galaxy rotation
predicted to smoothly bridge these two behaviors, reflecting curves, it works extremely well. It also has some successes for
the fact that real galaxies arent uniform spheres but instead the myriad other bits of evidence that has led to the dark mat-
have a gradient in the distribution of mass. ter conundrum. We will return to the strengths of the various
Figure 1 shows a prediction and observation for a typical proposed solutions to this problem after other solutions have
galaxy. Over the decades, thousands of galaxies have been been discussed.
investigated. Time and time again, astronomers found that
at large radii, stars all tend to orbit with the same velocity, in Dark matter: Baryonic
clear disagreement with the predictions. The general idea of dark matter is that there exists mat-
The pedagogical beauty of the dark matter conundrum is ter in the universe that does not emit or absorb light. While
exemplified in the simplicity of Eq. (1) and in the cover im- modern ideas of dark matter are more exotic, the initial
age. The very crux of Eq. (1) says that the origin of the cen- thinking was far more prosaic. Following the maxim Hear
tripetal force is the gravitational force. In order to account for hoof beats, look for horses and not zebras, astronomers
the disparity seen in Fig. 1, we are forced to conclude that one considered candidates for dark matter that were made of
or more of a few simple assumptions are incorrect. These are: ordinary matter. Since the mass of ordinary matter resides in
1. Newtons second law (F = ma) is wrong; the baryons (protons and neutrons) at the center of atoms,
2. Newtons theory of gravity (F = Gm1m2/r2) is wrong; we refer to this form of ordinary dark matter as baryonic
dark matter. Examples of baryonic dark matter include: cold
3. There are unconsidered forces (i.e. Fcentripetal Fgravity);
clouds of gas, black holes, brown dwarfs, burned out white
dwarfs, rogue planets, etc.
4. The universe contains a type of mass that is not visible. Searches using radio telescopes have observed significant
hydrogen gas in the universe, but this is not considered to be
MOND: Modifications of Newtonian dark as it emits electromagnetic radiation and can therefore
dynamics be included in the visible matter budget. The prime candi-
In 1981, physicist Mordehai Milgrom proposed3 that for date for baryonic dark matter is generically called a MAssive
very low values of acceleration, Newtons second law is in- Compact Halo Object, or MACHO. As the name suggests,
valid. Rather than the familiar F = ma, he proposed that these objects would be massive and compact and exist in the
F = ma m(a/a0), where the function m(a/a0) is not specified in halo of the galaxy, consisting of brown dwarfs, rogue planets,
detail, but is unity for accelerations large compared to a0 and and similar objects.
is equal to a/a0 for a < a0. The variable a0 is an acceleration Searches for these kinds of objects were performed in
of order 10-10 m/s2. While the form of m(a/a0) is unknown, the 1990s4 by collaborations with names such as MACHO,
we can investigate its effect on Newtons second law by taking OGLE, and others. These experiments exploited the principle
the simplifying assumption that it can take on just two values, of gravitational lensing, first predicted by Orest Khvolson in
which are those seen at large distances from a0. This changes 1924, but made widely known a dozen years later by a paper
the relationship between force and acceleration to by Einstein.5 When a massive body passes through the line
of sight between a distant star and an observer, the star will
. (4) appear to brighten as the massive body will act effectively as

The Physics Teacher Vol. 51, March 2013 135

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the creation of the universe. However, as we shall see, this is
no longer considered a viable candidate.
Non-baryonic dark matter could be like a gas of particles
that envelops the galaxy and suffuses the cosmos. We know
these hypothetical particles must be electrically neutral and
contain no quarks and gluons. Were they charged, they would
be heated up by light from stars and galaxies and thus be ob-
served. If they contained quarks and gluons, then cosmic rays
would interact with them as they cross the universe, again to
be observed. Thus these postulated particles must have mass
(in order to have the desired gravitational footprint) and
possibly interact via the weak nuclear force. If these particles
are light, then they would have a high velocity and could
penetrate great distances before undergoing a weak force
interaction. Matter of this form is called hot dark matter. In
contrast, if this kind of matter is heavy and slow, it would have
a mean free path that is relatively small. This form of matter
is called cold dark matter. Matter of intermediate mass is
called warm dark matter. Note that the distance scale that is
Fig. 2. When a massive body passes between a distant
star and your eye (top), it will gravitationally lens the
relevant is of order of tens or hundreds of thousands of light-
light from the star so that more light hits your instru- years, roughly the size of a cloud of gas that will eventually
ment (middle). A representative brightening curve is collapse into a galaxy.
shown in the bottom figure. The vertical axis is relative Simulations of how the universe would have evolved
brightness, with the light output before the microlens-
ing event normalized to unity. In order to guard against
under the influence of the various possible temperatures of
stars with naturally varying light output, several differ- non-baryonic dark matter result in very different universes.
ent colors are sampled to ensure that all colors bright- If dark matter is hot, then the first structures will be large
en equally. If they do, this is a candidate microlensing pancake-like structures of gas that eventually fragment into
event. (Figure adapted from Ref. 2.)
the observed superclusters of galaxies. This is called the top
a lens and bend more light into an observers instruments. down scenario. In contrast, cold dark matter, due to the
Telescopes were turned toward the Greater and Lesser Mag- shorter distance it can travel before interacting, first forms
ellanic Clouds and toward the galactic center. These targets proto-galaxies, which in turn eventually coalesce first into in-
provided a large sample of distant stars. If there are invisible dividual galaxies and then clusters of galaxies. Studies of the
compact massive objects in the galactic halo, they should oc- spatial distribution of galaxies out to distances of billions of
casionally pass in front of one of those distant stars. A char- light-years strongly favor the cold dark model scenario.8
acteristic brightening and dimming will be observed and the This is not to say that the cold dark model is without prob-
phenomenon is called microlensing. The important prin- lems. For instance, this model predicts that there should be
ciples can be seen in Fig. 2. more small satellite galaxies of the Milky Way than have been
Each of about half a dozen experiments have observed a observed.9 There is no answer to the question of dark matter
handful of microlensing events from stars in the Magellanic that is without issues.
Clouds and typically an order of magnitude more from stars Still, the dark matter hypothesis that is considered to be
in the center of the Milky Way. After initial reports of a large the strongest is the cold dark matter one. This matter is a
MACHO component of dark matter, modern experiments massive, slowly moving electrically neutral particle that in-
conclude that the compact component of dark matter is no teracts gravitationally and maybe via the weak force. Because
more than 20% of missing mass that is needed to explain we dont know the nature of this particle, it has been given
the rotation curve of the Milky Way, with some experiments the generic name of Weakly Interacting Massive Particle, or
concluding that the fraction is much less and some measuring WIMP, in contrast with the earlier MACHO candidate for
none at all. dark matter.
If WIMPs exist, then they should be everywhere. Depending
Dark matter: Non-baryonic on the mass of the WIMP, some few to tens to hundreds or so of
If we can rule out compact dark matter as the explanation them could be passing through you at any particular moment.
for the plethora of unanswered cosmic questions like the If that is true, then perhaps this dark matter can be observed.
rotation curves of galaxies, what is left? It remains possible There are three major ways to potentially observe WIMPs:
that there could be kinds of matter that are not baryonic. direct, indirect, and by creating them. Direct searches place
One possibility is relic neutrinos left over from the Big Bang. detectors here on Earth, typically deep in underground
In 1998, neutrinos were shown to have a small but non-zero mines. The basic idea is that WIMPs traveling through the
mass,6,7 and there are a tremendous number left over from Earth will interact with the detector and make their presence

136 The Physics Teacher Vol. 51, March 2013

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Fig. 4. This NASA image shows the collision of two clusters of
galaxies. The red regions are hot hydrogen gas left between the
two clusters as a consequence of the collision. The blue regions
show where the bulk of the mass is to be found. This mass is co-
located with the visible galaxies and is far larger than contained
in the galaxies themselves. This observation is considered to be
strong evidence that the cold dark matter hypothesis is correct.
(Figure courtesy NASA.)

annual modulation. The experimental situation in the direct

detection of dark matter is currently very murky, and new
Fig. 3. Motion of the Earth through the WIMPs passing through and improved detectors are coming online, hopefully to shed
the solar system results in a varying velocity between the light on the situation.
WIMPs and the detectors. This variation could lead to an Indirect measurements are different. If dark matter parti-
annual modulation in the experiments observation rate of
WIMP candidates. cles exist and follow certain models, there should also be dark
matter antiparticles. These matter/antimatter pairs should
known. There are dozens of dark matter experiments under occasionally meet up in outer space and annihilate. These in-
way all over the world. The technologies include solid state teractions may result in pairs of gamma rays or electron/posi-
detectors, liquid argon and xenon, bubble chambers, scintilla- tron pairs, which can be observed by satellite experiments.
tor-based technology, and other approaches. Many technolo- Like the direct measurement case, there are disagreements
gies require that the detectors be cooled, some to millikelvin between various experiments.11
levels, although others not. Care is made to select materials While it is puzzles from the cosmos that have led scientists
that have minimal radioactive contamination. The detectors to speculate about the existence of dark matter, if dark matter
location deep underground shields them from the ubiquitous is some sort of as yet undiscovered subatomic particle, it is
rain of cosmic rays. likely that this matter can be created in large particle accel-
Most detectors have failed to find any evidence for erators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Just as
WIMPs. Some have. The DAMA experiment has seen10 an the top quark was discovered in 1995 and like the July 2012
annual modulation in their observed signal, as illustrated observation of a new particle that might be the Higgs boson,
in Fig. 3. This is to be expected if they are seeing dark mat- these particle accelerators convert energy into new forms of
ter. The way to envision this is to imagine dark matter as a matter. Without knowing the nature of dark matter, it is dif-
wind passing through the solar system. At one point during ficult to know exactly how this will be accomplished. Theo-
the year, the orbit of the Earth carries it into the dark matter ries containing supersymmetry have been proposed12,13 to
wind. This increases the relative velocity between the Earth- solve myriad particle physics conundrums. These mysteries
based detector and the dark matter particles. Six months are seemingly unrelated to the questions of dark matter, but
later, the Earth will be moving in the same direction as the one prediction of many supersymmetric theories is that there
wind, reducing the dark matter/detector closing velocity. This will be a stable electrically neutral and massive particle. Since
variation in closing velocity should be reflected in an annual these are the same properties expected to be carried by dark
variation in signal, which is exactly what the DAMA detector matter, it is natural that these experiments have drawn the at-
has reported for over a decade. Many other detectors, some tention of astrophysicists. Perhaps the first time dark matter
expected to have much greater sensitivity, do not confirm the is observed wont be from the cosmos, but created in the same
DAMA result. On the other hand, in 2011, the CoGent exper- detectors that may have discovered the Higgs boson.
iment announced that they had observed the characteristic

The Physics Teacher Vol. 51, March 2013 137

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MOND versus cold dark matter of galaxies move so quickly that the clusters should have dis-
If we return our attention to the message of the image on persed over time. Gravitational lensing that is qualitatively
the cover, we recall that there are several unexplained obser- similar to the microlensing described here but on a vastly
vations that could be solved by one of several hypotheses. As larger scale shows tremendous quantities of unobserved
described in this article, the baryonic dark matter solution is matter, dispersed throughout the universe. Something is defi-
no longer viable, nor is the non-baryonic hot dark matter hy- nitely afoot.
pothesis. While the cold dark matter hypothesis is considered The cover image gives an intuitive representation of the
by most astrophysicists to be the most likely, there remains ongoing scientific debate. While the bulk of the scientific
a small community of very passionate MOND enthusiasts. community favors the cold dark matter hypothesis, the debate
Given that dark matter has not yet been observed, it seems is by no means settled. Until dark matter is observed by many
prudent to remain open to the MOND hypothesis. However, experiments that tell a common tale and until dark matter is
there is one observation that many have considered to pro- made at particle physics laboratories, the identity and even
vide definitive evidence that cold dark matter is the answer. the existence of dark matter must remain an open question
This evidence is to be found in the aftermath of one of the one of the most tantalizing and important scientific questions
grandest collisions in the universe, when two large clusters in contemporary physics.
of galaxies passed through each other. This cosmic pileup is
called the Bullet Cluster (see Fig. 4). References
Prior to the collision, the center of mass of ordinary lu- 1 I. Nicolson, Dark Side of the Universe (Johns Hopkins Univer-
minous matter (stars and galaxies), ordinary dark matter sity Press, Baltimore, 2007), Chap. 3.
(hydrogen clouds), and real dark matter (cold dark matter) 2. D. Lincoln, Understanding the Universe: From Quarks to the
should have been more or less identical in each of the two Cosmos (Revised) (World Scientific Press, Singapore, 2012).
clusters. When the two clusters collide, the stars and galax- 3. Ref. 1, pp. 7679.
ies are expected to pass through one another, gravitationally 4. Ref. 1, Chap. 4.
slowed but essentially unchanged. The hydrogen gas clouds, 5. Ref. 1, pp. 4546.
6. Ref. 2, pp. 335340.
being dispersed, should collide, heat up, and remain between
7. Ref. 1, pp. 6067.
the clusters as they pull away from one another. Both of these
8. Ref. 1, pp. 6872.
predictions have been observed. However, MOND and cold
9. Ref. 1, p. 75.
dark matter theories do make one different prediction. Since
10. Ref. 1, pp. 8788.
cold dark matter is at best weakly interacting, it is expected
11. Dan Hooper, TASI Lectures on Dark Matter,
that the dark matter will be found in the same location as the
arXiv:0901.4090v1 [hep-ph].
luminous matter. In MOND, on the other hand, deviations
12. Ref. 2, pp. 393409.
from Newtonian physics should look like an excess of mass, 13. D. Lincoln, The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider
where the bulk of the baryonic mass lies. This bulk is found in (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2009), pp. 3543.
the hydrogen gas. Observations of the Bullet Cluster favor the
cold dark matter hypothesis. Additional reading
Not so fast, claim the MOND proponents. While the Iain Nicolson, Dark Side of the Universe (JHUP, 2007).
cold dark matter hypothesis requires 10 times as much dark Richard Pane, The 4% Universe (Mariner Books, 2011).
matter as ordinary matter, the MOND hypothesis reduces the Evalyn Gates, Einsteins Telescope (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).
need for unseen matter to be only twice the observed matter. Dan Hooper, Dark Cosmos (Smithsonian, 2006).
This much smaller discrepancy could just be ordinary matter
that has not yet been observed. Further, they note, the solu- Don Lincoln is a senior researcher at Fermilab and an adjunct professor at
tion to the gravitational discrepancies seen in clusters of gal- the University of Notre Dame. He is a member of both of the Fermilab DZero
axies may be unrelated to the problem of the galaxy rotation and CERN CMS collaborations, and has co-authored over 500 papers. He
curves. In riposte, the cold dark matter proponents note that is also an avid popularizer of frontier physics and has written two books
MOND requires both the modification of Newtonian dynam- on science for the public: The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider
and Understanding the Universe: From Quarks to the Cosmos. His book
ics and some residual dark matter to explain the dynamics of Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in our Mind and in the Cosmos will be
clusters of galaxies, and that it is simply more parsimonious available in the fall of 2013.
to assume only extra dark matter. lincoln@fnal.gov; www.facebook.com/Dr.Don.Lincoln/

That there are many cosmic mysteries is undisputed. Gal-
axies rotate too fast to be explained by Newtons laws and the
luminous mass. Individual galaxies in the outskirts of clusters

138 The Physics Teacher Vol. 51, March 2013

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