What’s the Matter?
I couldn’t resist a quick comment today on a news article to which my attention was drawn at the weekend. The piece concerns the nature of the dark matter that is thought to pervade the Universe. Most cosmologists believe that this is cold, which means that it is made of slow-moving particles (the temperature of a gas being related to the speed of its constituent particles). They also believe that it is not the sort of stuff that atoms are made of, i.e. protons, neutrons and electrons. In particular, it isn’t charged and therefore can’t interact with electromagnetic radiation, thus it is not only dark in the sense that it doesn’t shine but also transparent.
Cold Dark Matter (CDM) particles could be very massive, which would make them much more sluggish than lighter ones such as neutrinos (which would be hot dark matter), but there are other, more complicated, ways in which some exotic particles can end up in a slow-motion state without being massive.
So why do so many of us think the dark matter is cold? The answer to that is threefold. First, this is by far the simplest hypothesis to work on. In other words, good old Occam’s Razor. It’s simple because if the dark matter is cold there is no relevant physical scale associated with the speed of the particles. Everything is just dominated by the gravity, which means there are fewer equations to solve. Not that it’s exactly easy even in this case: huge supercomputers are needed to crunch the numbers.
The second reason is that particle physics has suggested a number of plausible candidates for non-baryonic candidates which could be cold dark matter particles. A favourite theoretical idea is supersymmetry, which predicts that standard model particles have counterparts that could be interesting from a cosmological point of view, such as the fermionic counterparts of standard model bosons. Some of these candidates could even be produced experimentally by the Large Hadron Collider.
The final reason is that CDM seems to work, at least on large scales. The pattern of galaxy clustering on large scales as measured by galaxy redshift surveys seems to fit very well with predictions of the theory, as do the observed properties of the cosmic microwave background.
However, one place where CDM is known to have a problem is on small scales. By small of course I mean in cosmological terms; we’re still talking about many thousands of light-years! There’s been a niggling worry for some time that the internal structure of galaxies, especially in their central regions, isn’t quite what we expect on the basis of the CDM theory. Neither do the properties of the small satellite galaxies (“dwarfs”) seen orbiting the Milky Way seem to match what what we’d expect theoretically.
The above picture is taken from the BBC website. I’ve included it partly for a bit of decoration, but also to point out that the pictures are both computer simulations, not actual astronomical observations.
Anyway, the mismatch between the properties of dwarf galaxies and the predictions of CDM theory, while not being exactly new, is certainly a potential Achilles’ Heel for the otherwise successful model. Calculating the matter distribution on small scales however is a fearsome computational challenge requiring enormously high resolution. The disagreement may therefore be simply because the simulations are not good enough; “sub-grid” physics may be confusing us.
On the other hand, one should certainly not dismiss the possibility that CDM might actually be wrong. If the dark matter were not cold, but warm (or perhaps merely tepid), then it would produce less small-scale structure whilst not messing up the good fit to large-scale structure that we get with CDM.
So is the Dark Matter Cold or Warm or something else altogether? The correct answer is that we don’t know for sure, and as a matter of fact I think CDM is still favourite. But if the LHC rules out supersymmetric CDM candidates and the astronomical measurements continue to defy the theoretical predictions then the case for cold dark matter would be very much weakened. That might annoy some of its advocates in the cosmological community, such as Carlos Frenk (who is extensively quoted in the article), but it would at least mean that the hunt for the true nature of dark matter would be getting warmer.Follow @telescoper