Dark matter: An invisible glue that may not even exist

Dark matter: An invisible glue that may not even exist

In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin, a Scottish-Irish physicist, wanted to estimate the mass of our galaxy, the Milkyway, using data on how fast stars moved around the galaxy’s core.

NEW DELHI: It has never been detected, only speculated. But scientists estimate that up to 85% of the matter in the universe could be made of what’s called dark matter. Scientists cannot define dark matter with any certainty, but that hasn’t stopped the search for it. Our largest and newest space-based telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is on the case. It was barely moments after the first images taken by the telescope had been released on July 12, 2022, when Kai Noeske said something both mysterious and true.

Noeske, an astronomer at the European Space Observation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, was pointing to an image of Stephan’s Quintet, a group of five galaxies, as they have never been seen before.

And he said: “There is a lot out there that we do not know. And we do not know what we do not know. [But] one of those things could be dark matter.” In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin, a Scottish-Irish physicist, wanted to estimate the mass of our galaxy, the Milkyway, using data on how fast stars moved around the galaxy’s core. But Kelvin found discrepancies or anomalies in the data, things which could not be explained and were attributed to “dark bodies” that we cannot see.

“The galaxy seems to be rotating much faster than it should, based on estimates,” explained Tevong You, a theorist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The theory is that there is an “invisible matter” responsible for the speed at which our galaxy rotates, said You. And that may be true of other galaxies as well. Stars have been observed to travel at higher-than-estimated speeds, especially at the edges of galaxies. And that is weird. Imagine you attached a stone to a string, and you rotated it at high speed. The stone would cut loose and fly off if it reached a speed higher than a certain threshold — a point at which the string becomes too weak to hold onto the stone, as the stone picks up speed and gains more force.

But astronomers have observed stars that continue to spin around the center of the galaxy, even when the string holding them to the galaxy, as it were, should have ripped, and the stars should have “flown off”. The astronomers’ only explanation is that there must be some invisible matter holding the stone in range. Perhaps it’s this elusive dark matter? That remains an unanswered question. And there are many other anomalies, such as the shape of some galaxies, including our Milkyway, that are so far unexplained. We can’t see dark matter but we may see its effects

Scientists say that the reason we are unable to see or detect this invisible matter is that it does not interact with electromagnetic forces — things like visible light, X-ray or radio waves. They argue that we can, however, observe some of the effects of dark matter through its gravitational force. But we still want to detect dark matter in its own right. And here’s where CERN’s Large Hadron Collider comes in. Tevong You and other researchers at CERN think the LHC is our best chance of detecting dark matter. A decade ago, experiments at the LHC proved the Standard Model of particle physics by detecting the Higgs boson particle — a particle which itself had long proved to be elusive.

The Standard Model is the idea that everything in the universe is made of a few fundamental particles and that those are governed by four fundamental forces — the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. Tevong You said that the LHC could help solve the mystery of dark matter. But even now, You suspects that dark matter will be nothing like the particles we know from the Standard Model.

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