Archive for May 23, 2012

Dark Matter: Dearth Evaded

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by telescoper

While I’m catching up on developments over the last week or so I thought I’d post an update on a story I blogged about a few weeks ago. This concerns the the topic of dark matter in the Solar Neighbourhood and in particular a paper on the arXiv by Moni Bidin et al. with the following abstract:

We measured the surface mass density of the Galactic disk at the solar position, up to 4 kpc from the plane, by means of the kinematics of ~400 thick disk stars. The results match the expectations for the visible mass only, and no dark matter is detected in the volume under analysis. The current models of dark matter halo are excluded with a significance higher than 5sigma, unless a highly prolate halo is assumed, very atypical in cold dark matter simulations. The resulting lack of dark matter at the solar position challenges the current models.

In my earlier post I remarked that this  study   makes a number of questionable assumptions about the shape of the Milky Way halo – they take it to be smooth and spherical – and the distribution of velocities within it is taken to have a very simple form.

Well, only last week a rebuttal paper by Bovy & Tremaine appeared on the arXiv. Here is its abstract:

An analysis of the kinematics of 412 stars at 1-4 kpc from the Galactic mid-plane by Moni Bidin et al. (2012) has claimed to derive a local density of dark matter that is an order of magnitude below standard expectations. We show that this result is incorrect and that it arises from the invalid assumption that the mean azimuthal velocity of the stellar tracers is independent of Galactocentric radius at all heights; the correct assumption—that is, the one supported by data—is that the circular speed is independent of radius in the mid-plane. We demonstrate that the assumption of constant mean azimuthal velocity is physically implausible by showing that it requires the circular velocity to drop more steeply than allowed by any plausible mass model, with or without dark matter, at large heights above the mid-plane. Using the correct approximation that the circular velocity curve is flat in the mid-plane, we find that the data imply a local dark-matter density of 0.008 +/- 0.002 Msun/pc^3= 0.3 +/- 0.1 Gev/cm^3, fully consistent with standard estimates of this quantity. This is the most robust direct measurement of the local dark-matter density to date.

So it seems reports of the dearth were greatly exaggerated..

Having read the paper I think this is a pretty solid refutation, and if you don’t want to take my word for it I’ll also add that Scott Tremaine is one of the undisputed world experts in the field of Galactic Dynamics. It will be interesting to see how Moni Bidin et al. respond.

This little episode raises the question that, if there was a problem with the assumed velocity distribution in the original paper (as many of us suspected), why wasn’t this spotted by the referee?

Of course to a scientist there’s nothing unusual about scientific results being subjected to independent scrutiny and analysis. That’s how science advances. There is a danger in all this, however, with regard to the public perception of science. The original claim – which will probably turn out to be wrong – was accompanied by a fanfare of publicity. The later analysis arrives at a much less spectacular conclusion,  so will probably attract much less attention. In the long run, though, it probably isn’t important if this is regarded as a disappointingly boring outcome. I hope what really matters for scientific progress is people doing things properly. Even if it  don’t make the headlines, good science will win out in the end. Maybe.

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Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 76

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on May 23, 2012 by telescoper

On many occasions I’ve been struck by the striking resemblance between British astronomer Phil Charles and Australian comedian, satirist and character actor Barry Humphries.

Phil Charles

Barry Humphries