The most popular theory of dark matter is that it is a slow-moving particle. It travels up to a tenth of the speed of light. It neither emits nor scatters light. In other words, it is invisible. However, its effects are detectable, as I will explain below. Scientists call the mass associated with dark matter a “WIMP” (Weakly Interacting Massive Particle).

In 1933, Fritz Zwicky (California Institute of Technology) made a crucial observation. He discovered the orbital velocities of galaxies were not following Newton’s law of gravitation (every mass in the universe attracts every other mass with a force inversely proportional to the square of the difference between them). They were orbiting too fast for the visible mass to be held together by gravity. If the galaxies followed Newton’s law of gravity, the outermost stars would be thrown into space. He reasoned there had to be more mass than the eye could see, essentially an unknown and invisible form of mass that was allowing gravity to hold the galaxies together. Zwicky’s calculations revealed that there had to be 400 times more mass in the galaxy clusters than what was visible. This is the mysterious “missing-mass problem.” It is normal to think that this discovery would turn the scientific world on its ear. However, as profound as the discovery turned out to be, progress in understanding the missing mass lags until the 1970s.

In 1975, Vera Rubin and fellow staff member Kent Ford, astronomers at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, presented findings that reenergized Zwicky’s earlier claim of missing matter. At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, they announced the finding that most stars in spiral galaxies orbit at roughly the same speed. They made this discovery using a new, sensitive spectrograph (a device that separates an incoming wave into a frequency spectrum). The new spectrograph accurately measured the velocity curve of spiral galaxies. Like Zwicky, they found the spiral velocity of the galaxies was too fast to hold all the stars in place. Using Newton’s law of gravity, the galaxies should be flying apart, but they were not. Presented with this new evidence, the scientific community finally took notice. Their first reaction was to call into question the findings, essentially casting doubt on what Rubin and Ford reported. This is a common and appropriate reaction, until the amount of evidence (typically independent verification) becomes convincing.

In 1980, Rubin and her colleagues published their findings (V. Rubin, N. Thonnard, W. K. Ford, Jr, (1980). “Rotational Properties of 21 Sc Galaxies with a Large Range of Luminosities and Radii from NGC 4605 (R=4kpc) to UGC 2885 (R=122kpc).” Astrophysical Journal 238: 471.). It implied that either Newton’s laws do not apply, or that more than 50% of the mass of galaxies is invisible. Although skepticism abounded, eventually other astronomers confirmed their findings. The experimental evidence had become convincing. “Dark matter,” the invisible mass, dominates most galaxies. Even in the face of conflicting theories that attempt to explain the phenomena observed by Zwicky and Rubin, most scientists believe dark matter is real. None of the conflicting theories (which typically attempted to modify how gravity behaved on the cosmic scale) was able to explain all the observed evidence, especially gravitational lensing (the way gravity bends light).

Currently, the scientific community believes that dark matter is real and abundant, making up as much as 90% of the mass of the universe. However, dark matter is still a mystery. For years, scientists have been working to find the WIMP particle to confirm dark matter’s existence. All efforts have been either unsuccessful or inconclusive.

This material is from Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries (2012), Louis A. Del Monte.