• Barbara Jesline

Do you know: Dark matter & Dark energy

The visible universeincluding Earth, the sun, other stars, and galaxiesis made of protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms. Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries of the 20th century was that this ordinary, or baryonic, matter makes up less than 5 percent of the mass of the universe. Unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with the electromagnetic force. This means it does not absorb, reflect or emit light, making it extremely hard to spot. In fact, researchers have been able to infer the existence of dark matter only from the gravitational effect it seems to have on visible matter. Dark matter seems to outweigh visible matter roughly six to one, making up about 27% of the universe. Here's a sobering fact: The matter we know and that makes up all stars and galaxies only account for 5% of the content of the universe! But what is dark matter? One idea is that it could contain "supersymmetric particles" – hypothesized particles that are partners to those already known in the Standard Model. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may provide more direct clues about dark matter.

Physicists and astronomers have determined that most of the material in the universe is “dark matter”—whose existence we infer from its gravitational effects but not through electromagnetic influences such as we find with the ordinary, familiar matter. One of the simplest concepts in physics, dark matter can nonetheless be mystifying because of our human perspective. Each of us has five senses, all of which originate in electromagnetic interactions. Vision, for example, is based on our sensitivity to light: electromagnetic waves that lie within a specific range of frequencies. We can see the matter with which we are familiar because the atoms that make it up emit or absorb light. The electric charges carried by the electrons and protons in atoms are the reason we can see.

The matter is not necessarily composed of atoms, however. Most of it can be made of something entirely distinct. The matter is any material that interacts with gravity as normal matter does—becoming clumped into galaxies and galaxy clusters, for example.

There is no reason that matter must always consist of charged particles. But the matter that has no electromagnetic interactions will be invisible to our eyes. So-called dark matter carries no (or as yet undetectably little) electromagnetic charge. No one has seen it directly with his or her eyes or even with sensitive optical instruments. Yet we believe it is out there because of its manifold gravitational influences. These include dark matter’s impact on the stars in our galaxy (which revolve at speeds too great for ordinary matter’s gravitational force to rein in) and the motions of galaxies in galaxy clusters (again, too fast to be accounted for only by matter that we see); its imprint on the cosmic microwave background radiation leftover from the time of the big bang; its influence on the trajectories of visible matter from supernova expansions; the bending of light known as gravitational lensing; and the observation that the visible and invisible matter gets separated in merged galaxy clusters.

Dark energy makes up approximately 68% of the universe and appears to be associated with the vacuum in space. It is distributed evenly throughout the universe, not only in space but also in time – in other words, its effect is not diluted as the universe expands. The even distribution means that dark energy does not have any local gravitational effects, but rather a global effect on the universe as a whole. This leads to a repulsive force, which tends to accelerate the expansion of the universe. The rate of expansion and its acceleration can be measured by observations based on the Hubble law. These measurements, together with other scientific data, have confirmed the existence of dark energy and provide an estimate of just how much of this mysterious substance exists.

Dark energy is even more mysterious, and its discovery in the 1990s was a complete shock to scientists. Previously, physicists had assumed that the attractive force of gravity would slow down the expansion of the universe over time. But when two independent teams tried to measure the rate of deceleration, they found that the expansion was actually speeding up. One scientist likened the finding of throwing a set of keys up in the air expecting them to fall back down-only to see them fly straight up toward the ceiling.

Scientists now think that the accelerated expansion of the universe is driven by a kind of repulsive force generated by quantum fluctuations in otherwise "empty" space. What's more, the force seems to be growing stronger as the universe expands. For lack of a better name, scientists call this mysterious force dark energy.

Unlike dark matter, scientists have no plausible explanation for dark energy. According to one idea, dark energy is a fifth and previously unknown type of fundamental force called quintessence, which fills the universe like a fluid.

Many scientists have also pointed out that the known properties of dark energy are consistent with a cosmological constant, a mathematical Band-Aid that Albert Einstein added to his theory of general relativity to make his equations fit with the notion of a static universe. According to Einstein, the constant would be a repulsive force that counteracts gravity, keeping the universe from collapsing in on itself. Einstein later discarded the idea when astronomical observations revealed that the universe was expanding, calling the cosmological constant his "biggest blunder."