Dark matter is real, mysterious, and necessary for our existence. Without it, we would not have a universe. It is a good thing with an ominous-sounding name. So, what is dark matter?

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.

The Department of Energy Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment is ongoing, in an abandoned iron mine about a half mile below the surface, in Soudan, Minnesota. The Fermilab is a half mile under the earth’s surface to filter cosmic rays so the instruments are able to detect elementary particles without the background noise of cosmic rays. In 2009, they reported detecting two events that have characteristics consistent with the particles that physicists believe make up dark matter. They may have detected the WIMP particle. However, they are not making that claim at the time of this writing. The Fermilab stopped short of claiming they had detected dark matter because of the strict criteria that they have self-imposed, specifically there must be less than one chance in a thousand that the event detected was due to a background particle. The two events, although consistent with the detection of dark matter, do not pass that test.

From an article written in Fermilab Today (December 13, 2009), the Fermilab Director Pier Oddone said, “While this result is consistent with dark matter, it is also consistent with backgrounds. In 2010, the collaboration is installing an upgraded detector (SuperCDMS) at Soudan with three times the mass and lower backgrounds than the present detectors. If these two events are indeed a dark matter signal, then the upgraded detector will be able to tell us definitively that we have found a dark matter particle.” As of this writing, Fermilab and other laboratories maintain their quest to find the WIMP particle. To date, we are without conclusive evidence that the WIMP exists.

If it exists, there is a reasonable probability that the WIMP particle can be “created” via experiments involving super colliders (such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) over a ten-year period from 1998 to 2008). Super colliders have successfully given us a glimpse into the early universe. Since most scientists believe that dark matter exists as part of creation at the instant of the Big Bang, super colliders may provide a reasonable methodology of directly creating dark matter. As of this writing, scientists using the Large Hadron Collider are attempting to create WIMP particles via high-energy proton collisions.

Are we on the right track? Is there a WIMP particle or is dark matter related to something else? We’ll explore the nature of dark matter in more depth in my next post?