Sure, nobody knows whether galaxies actually contain the weakly interacting and non-luminous particles we have come to call dark matter. And Fritz Zwicky was first to notice a cluster of galaxies which moved faster than the visible mass alone could account for – and the one to coin the term dark matter. But it was Rubin who pinned down the evidence that galaxies are systematically misbehaved by showing the rotational velocities of spiral galaxies don’t flatten out with distance from the galactic center – as if there was unseen extra mass in the galaxies. And Zwicky is dead anyway, so the Nobel committee doesn’t have to worry about him.
After Rubin’s discovery, many other observations confirmed that we were missing matter, and not only a little bit, but 80% of all matter in the universe. It’s there, but it’s not some stuff that we know. The fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, gravitational lensing, the formation of large-scale structures in the universe – none of these would fit with the predictions of general relativity if there wasn’t additional matter to curve space-time. And if you go through all the particles in the standard model, none of them fits the bill. They’re either too light or too heavy or too strongly interacting or too unstable.
But once physicists had the standard model, every problem began to look like a particle, and so, beginning in the mid-1980s, dozens of experiments started to search for dark matter particles. So far, they haven’t found anything. No WIMPS, no axions, no wimpzillas, neutralinos, sterile neutrinos, or other things that would be good candidates for the missing matter.
This might not mean much. It might mean merely that the dark matter particles are even more weakly interacting than expected. It might mean that the particle types we’ve dealt with so far were too simple. Or maybe it means dark matter isn’t made of particles.
It’s an old idea, though one that never rose to popularity, that rather than adding new sources for gravity we could instead keep the known sources but modify the way they gravitate. And the more time passes without a dark matter particle caught in a detector, the more appealing this alternative starts to become. Maybe gravity doesn’t work the way Einstein taught us.
Modified gravity had an unfortunate start because its best known variant – Modified Newtonian Dynamics or MOND – is extremely unappealing from a theoretical point of view. It’s in contradiction with general relativity and that makes it a non-starter for most theorists. Meanwhile, however, there are variants of modified gravity which are compatible with general relativity.
The benefit of modifying gravity is that it offers an explanation for observations that particle dark matter has nothing to say about: Many galaxies show regularities in the way their stars’ motion is affected by dark matter. Clouds of dark particles that would collect in halos around galaxies can be flexibly adapted to match the observations of all observed galaxies. But dark matter particles are so flexible, that it’s difficult to reproduce regularities.
The best known of them is the Tully-Fisher relation, a correlation between the luminosity of a galaxy and the velocity of the outermost stars. Nobody has succeeded to explain this with particle dark matter, but modified gravity can explain it.
In a recent paper, a group of researchers from the United States offers a neat new way to quantify these regularities. They compare the gravitational acceleration that must be acting on stars in galaxies as inferred from observation (gobs) with the gravitational acceleration due to the observed stars and gas, ie baryonic matter (gbar). As expected, the observed gravitational acceleration is much larger than what the visible mass would lead one to expect. They are also, however, strongly correlated with each other (see figure below). It’s difficult to see how particle dark matter could cause this. (Though I would like to see how this plot looks for a ΛCDM simulation. I would still expect some correlation and would prefer not to judge its strength by gut feeling.)
|Figure from arXiv:1609.05917 [astro-ph.GA]|
This isn’t so much new evidence as an improved way to quantify existing evidence for regularities in spiral galaxies. Lee Smolin, always quick on his feet, thinks he can explain this correlation with quantum gravity. I don’t quite share his optimism, but it’s arguably intriguing.
Modifying gravity however has its shortcomings. While it seems to work reasonably well on the level of galaxies, it’s hard to make it work for galaxy clusters too. Observations for example of the Bullet cluster (image below) seem to show that the visible mass can be at a different place than the gravitating mass. That’s straight-forward to explain with particle dark matter but difficult to make sense of with modified gravity.
|The bullet cluster. |
In red: estimated distribution of baryonic mass.
In blue: estimated distribution of gravitating mass, extracted from gravitational lensing.
The explanation I presently find most appealing is that dark matter is a type of particle whose dynamical equations sometimes mimic those of modified gravity. This option, pursued, among others, by Stefano Liberati and Justin Khoury, combines the benefits of both approaches without the disadvantages of either. There is, however, a lot of data in cosmology and it will take a long time to find out whether this idea can fit the observations as well – or better – than particle dark matter.
But regardless of what dark matter turns out to be, Rubin’s observations have given rise to one of the most active research areas in physics today. I hope that the Royal Academy eventually wakes up and honors her achievement.