Does dark matter exist?

After 80 years of agreement about the dark stuff, opinions may be changing.

The peasants are revolting. Last night the Flamsteed Astronomical Society met at the National Maritime Museum to hear a debate on the existence (or not) of dark matter. In a vote at the end, the audience decided it probably doesn’t exist.

The idea of dark matter has been around since 1933, when a Swiss astronomer called Fritz Zwicky found that centrifugal forces should have been tearing spinning galaxy clusters apart – but weren’t. The answer, he suggested, was that there was extra stuff in there, whose gravitational pull was holding everything together.
 
Astronomers now believe this stuff makes up around a quarter of the universe, if you take into account all the mass and energy in the cosmos. Ignore the pure energy, and dark matter accounts for 80 per cent of the universe’s mass. Which makes it a little embarrassing that we have never seen any.

Neither do we know what it looks like. We’ve been groping around for dark matter since about 1970. Various predictions have been made: in 1980, astronomer Vera Rubin said it would be found within 10 years. In 1990, astronomer royal Martin Rees said the dark matter mystery would be solved by the turn of the century. In 1999 Rees was aware he had been too hasty, and said we would know what dark matter is by 2004. Last January, CERN theoretical physicist and Gandalf lookalike John Ellis gave the physicists another decade.
 
But patience is starting to wear thin. At last night’s debate, Oxford physicist and co-presenter of The Sky at Night Chris Lintott made the case for dark matter; astronomy writer Stuart Clark argued that a modification to the laws of gravity, which are dictated by Einstein’s general relativity theory, held more promise for explaining the (apparently) missing mass. At the end of the evening, the audience sided with Clark and modifying gravity.
 
That’s not going to have dark matter astronomers quaking in their boots. But it is nonetheless indicative of a change of mood. Take what went on at the Cosmic Variance blog last week. Sean Carroll, the blog’s host, has always been bullishly pro dark matter. But it seems he has started to hedge a bit.
 
In a fascinating post, he published the trialogue he had been conducting with astronomer Stacey McGaugh, the original proponent of the modified gravity idea (it’s called MOND: modified Newtonian Dynamics) and German astrophysicist Rainer Plaga. Right at the top, Carroll concedes that “it may very well turn out that the behavior of gravity on large scales does not precisely match the prediction of ordinary general relativity”. In other words, he is saying, we might well have to modify gravity.
 
It’s worth pointing out a couple more reasons it’s OK to harbour doubts about the dark stuff. Last September, Durham astronomer Carlos Frenk admitted he was “losing sleep” over the results of his own computer simulations. His work had showed that the way simulated dwarf galaxies – mainly composed of dark matter – form in a halo around our own galaxy doesn’t tally with what we observe. His conclusion was that the standard theory of dark matter is almost certainly wrong, adding that searches for the stuff at the LHC in Geneva would therefore prove fruitless.
 
Then last month two groups of astronomers announced that dark matter wasn’t where it should be. The sun is meant to be surrounded by a halo of dark matter, and it isn’t.
 
If there really is no dark matter, that won’t be a mainstream view for decades to come. Once it’s got some momentum, it takes a lot of effort to change direction in science. But it does seem that, after 80 years, someone’s found the handbrake on the dark matter juggernaut.
 

Images of giant galaxy clusters, said to be mainly made up of dark matter. Photograph: Nasa/Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon