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Dark Matter 101

ByDon LincolnThe Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality

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Astronomers have a pretty sweet job. They are paid to stare at the heavens and wonder. Some of their observations are pretty ordinary, but some observations are revolutionary—like the measurements of galaxy rotation that convinced astronomers that our universe is studded with invisible mass called dark matter. In this pencast, I will explain how that apparently simple observation led astronomers to such an extraordinary conclusion.

When astronomers watch rotating galaxies and compare their observations with predictions based on Newton’s laws of gravity, they find something strange. Stars near the center of galaxies are well behaved and move as expected. However stars farther from the center are rebellious. They move far faster than the laws of physics predict they should; so fast, in fact, that these galaxies shouldn’t exist: They should be ripped apart. Since we know that galaxies have existed for billions of years, this is a glaring paradox.

This conundrum nagged at scientists for over half a century. Astronomers proposed many solutions, from suggestions that our understanding of inertia is wrong to new ideas of how gravity works. But the likeliest explanation is that galaxies contain more matter than we see.

When I say “see,” I don’t mean just “seeing” with our eyes or even with the familiar telescopes that are sensitive to visual light. I mean “seeing” with any and every kind of telescope in our arsenal, including the huge antennas that pick up radio emission from the vast clouds of hydrogen that typically make up most of the mass of galaxies.

To acknowledge the fact that this proposed extra matter is invisible to our ordinary methods of detection, we call it “dark matter.” We know it’s out there, but what is it? Come back next week for more about the quest to capture traces of dark matter here on Earth.

Go Deeper
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American Museum of Natural History: Vera Rubin and Dark Matter
In this profile, learn how astronomer Vera Rubin’s galaxy observations helped establish the presence of dark matter.

NOVA scienceNOW: The Dark Matter Mystery
In this video, explore the evidence for dark matter.

TED: Patricia Burchat sheds light on dark matter
In this talk, physicist Patricia Burchat explores dark matter and dark energy.