What’s the Matter With Dark Matter?

by Rudra Mehta


What’s the Matter With Dark Matter?

January 7, 2021

Scientists are trying to uncover something that is nothing, and yet at the same time, everything. But the task is more arduous than expected.

It seems that until now, the term space meant space, both in standard terms and in astrophysics. But upon more in-depth inspection, space is no longer just space. What we see in space, technically what we don’t see, still exists. The vacuum state that we assume our universe to be in is, in fact, “filled” with something beyond our understanding. And that is what we called dark matter (pause for dramatic effect!). So, why concern ourselves with something we can’t even notice? The answer affects us a lot more than we think.

The Dark Side of Dark Matter

So, we know that dark matter is dark, but umm, that’s pretty much it. What constitutes dark matter? In simple terms, whatever we cannot see in space is nearly dark matter. There are millions of galaxies and more than a billion stars and planets. Then we have the nebulas, quasars, black holes, wormholes (apparently), and so much more. These are the elements visible to us, either through the naked eye or using instruments. But what about the giant gaps, technically known as voids, that exists between these objects. Is it truly empty? Our eyes may say yes, but physics says no.

The “discovery” of dark matter has been credited to Fritz Zwicky, who simply termed it “Dunkle Materie” (in German), which is weird as dark matter is anything but dark. Dark matter is truly invisible, and its existence solely rests on pure theory. Imagine voyaging from the Earth to the Moon, thanks to Elon’s space tourism project becoming a reality. You will be travelling, more like floating, through vacuum and nothingness, but what if we were to tell you that the void you “see” is dark matter?

Is Dark Matter Dangerous?

The universe consists of over 90% dark matter. This is astonishing, considering how many objects scientists have already detected and identified. As we can collectively call these objects (including us), the visible issue is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The task now is to identify the elements that make dark matter what it is. It cannot be a purely physical entity, as we would feel the resistance much like the atmosphere on Earth, but it still holds some mass at the very least to “exist”. Dark matter has been theorised to be affected by gravity, but it does not react to electromagnetic forces, hence staying undetectable.

So how does one imagine it? Well, there is a theory that gravity functions the way it does because of dark matter. It is the symbolic force field that binds the planets and galaxies as a whole. If you were to spin something around an object, the item would move away from the center after applying sufficient rotation and speed. Up until now, scientists believed that gravity was the only force keeping our Earth glued to the Sun. But now, it may be indeed a dark matter that pushes the planet towards the Sun under the influence of gravity to counteract Earth’s rotation and revolution. So, in short, it is not dangerous yet.

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This artist’s impression shows the Milky Way galaxy. The blue halo of material surrounding the galaxy indicates the expected distribution of the mysterious dark matter, which was first introduced by astronomers to explain the rotation properties of the galaxy and is now also an essential ingredient in current theories of the formation and evolution of galaxies. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The Matter of Things

Another example of something based on the concept of dark matter is a black hole. Blackholes are so much more than Interstellar depicts them as. A Brief History of Time, written by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, perfectly encapsulates the creation, life, and death of a black hole. Just kidding, black holes can’t die because they’re already dead. That was some “dark” humour for you.

If we were to simplify the dark matter theory which is purely hypothetical for now, there is a growing belief that black holes can be a source of dark matter. If a black hole does not even allow light to escape, which is essentially made up of photons, let alone physical matter, where does all this sucked-in hoo-ha go?

Here, the black hole acts like a recycling plant, churning out physical matter into dark matter, releasing energy in the process called Hawking Radiation. Where this dark matter goes or the quantity expelled is still a mystery, but that discovery is also imminent. This also provides some basis to the concept of Blanets, much like the one we see in Interstellar, and may explain why they seem to exist in perfect harmony with a black hole despite living next-door to a hungry monster.

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Rotation curves of the Andromeda Galaxy. Actual rotational velocities of the outer stars are the white line, while velocities that would be expected from the estimated mass of the visible matter in the galaxy are the red line. Hence, we conclude that over 80% of the galaxy's mass must be dark matter. Credit: Queens Uni.

Is There More?

Supernovae are also a rich source of dark matter. It might sound like a nutritional fact, but in reality, a supernova is known to release the highest amount of energy and matter in a tiny period and create giant nebulas, gas clouds, voids, and of course, black holes. But where is dark matter created in this case? Supernova 1987A is one such example whose core remains a mystery to scientists. Unlocking the core’s secrets might just take us one step closer to solving another mystery of the universe.

Percent of The Universe Consists of Dark Matter.

Dark matter is an extensive topic that spans across the entire universe, literally and metaphorically. It is finally making us observe space in a different light, the one without any light. Only time will tell how much we can find out about this mysterious entity and its existence.

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