Common ground

In order to agree on an interpretation, we first have to agree on the facts. Even when we agree on the facts, the available set of facts may admit multiple interpretations. This was an obvious and widely accepted truth early in my career*. Since then, the field has decayed into a haphazardly conceived set of unquestionable absolutes that are based on a large but well-curated subset of facts that gratuitously ignores any subset of facts that are inconvenient.

Sadly, we seem to have entered a post-truth period in which facts are drowned out by propaganda. I went into science to get away from people who place faith before facts, and comfortable fictions ahead of uncomfortable truths. Unfortunately, a lot of those people seem to have followed me here. This manifests as people who quote what are essentially pro-dark matter talking points at me like I don’t understand LCDM, when all it really does is reveal that they are posers** who picked up on some common myths about the field without actually reading the relevant journal articles.

Indeed, a recent experience taught me a new psychology term: identity protective cognition. Identity protective cognition is the tendency for people in a group to selectively credit or dismiss evidence in patterns that reflect the beliefs that predominate in their group. When it comes to dark matter, the group happens to be a scientific one, but the psychology is the same: I’ve seen people twist themselves into logical knots to protect their belief in dark matter from being subject to critical examination. They do it without even recognizing that this is what they’re doing. I guess this is a human foible we cannot escape.

I’ve addressed these issues before, but here I’m going to start a series of posts on what I think some of the essential but underappreciated facts are. This is based on a talk that I gave at a conference on the philosophy of science in 2019, back when we had conferences, and published in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. I paid the exorbitant open access fee (the journal changed its name – and publication policy – during the publication process), so you can read the whole thing all at once if you are eager. I’ve already written it to be accessible, so mostly I’m going to post it here in what I hope are digestible chunks, and may add further commentary if it seems appropriate.

Cosmic context

Cosmology is the science of the origin and evolution of the universe: the biggest of big pictures. The modern picture of the hot big bang is underpinned by three empirical pillars: an expanding universe (Hubble expansion), Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN: the formation of the light elements through nuclear reactions in the early universe), and the relic radiation field (the Cosmic Microwave Background: CMB) (Harrison, 2000; Peebles, 1993). The discussion here will take this framework for granted.

The three empirical pillars fit beautifully with General Relativity (GR). Making the simplifying assumptions of homogeneity and isotropy, Einstein’s equations can be applied to treat the entire universe as a dynamical entity. As such, it is compelled either to expand or contract. Running the observed expansion backwards in time, one necessarily comes to a hot, dense, early phase. This naturally explains the CMB, which marks the transition from an opaque plasma to a transparent gas (Sunyaev and Zeldovich, 1980; Weiss, 1980). The abundances of the light elements can be explained in detail with BBN provided the universe expands in the first few minutes as predicted by GR when radiation dominates the mass-energy budget of the universe (Boesgaard & Steigman, 1985).

The marvelous consistency of these early universe results with the expectations of GR builds confidence that the hot big bang is the correct general picture for cosmology. It also builds overconfidence that GR is completely sufficient to describe the universe. Maintaining consistency with modern cosmological data is only possible with the addition of two auxiliary hypotheses: dark matter and dark energy. These invisible entities are an absolute requirement of the current version of the most-favored cosmological model, ΛCDM. The very name of this model is born of these dark materials: Λ is Einstein’s cosmological constant, of which ‘dark energy’ is a generalization, and CDM is cold dark matter.

Dark energy does not enter much into the subject of galaxy formation. It mainly helps to set the background cosmology in which galaxies form, and plays some role in the timing of structure formation. This discussion will not delve into such details, and I note only that it was surprising and profoundly disturbing that we had to reintroduce (e.g., Efstathiou et al., 1990; Ostriker and Steinhardt, 1995; Perlmutter et al., 1999; Riess et al., 1998; Yoshii and Peterson, 1995) Einstein’s so-called ‘greatest blunder.’

Dark matter, on the other hand, plays an intimate and essential role in galaxy formation. The term ‘dark matter’ is dangerously crude, as it can reasonably be used to mean anything that is not seen. In the cosmic context, there are at least two forms of unseen mass: normal matter that happens not to glow in a way that is easily seen — not all ordinary material need be associated with visible stars — and non-baryonic cold dark matter. It is the latter form of unseen mass that is thought to dominate the mass budget of the universe and play a critical role in galaxy formation.

Cold Dark Matter

Cold dark matter is some form of slow moving, non-relativistic (‘cold’) particulate mass that is not composed of normal matter (baryons). Baryons are the family of particles that include protons and neutrons. As such, they compose the bulk of the mass of normal matter, and it has become conventional to use this term to distinguish between normal, baryonic matter and the non-baryonic dark matter.

The distinction between baryonic and non-baryonic dark matter is no small thing. Non-baryonic dark matter must be a new particle that resides in a new ‘dark sector’ that is completely distinct from the usual stable of elementary particles. We do not just need some new particle, we need one (or many) that reside in some sector beyond the framework of the stubbornly successful Standard Model of particle physics. Whatever the solution to the mass discrepancy problem turns out to be, it requires new physics.

The cosmic dark matter must be non-baryonic for two basic reasons. First, the mass density of the universe measured gravitationally (Ωm ​≈ ​0.3, e.g., Faber and Gallagher, 1979; Davis et al., 1980, 1992) clearly exceeds the mass density in baryons as constrained by BBN (Ωb ​≈ ​0.05, e.g., Walker et al., 1991). There is something gravitating that is not ordinary matter: Ωm ​> ​Ωb.

The second reason follows from the absence of large fluctuations in the CMB (Peebles and Yu, 1970; Silk, 1968; Sunyaev and Zeldovich, 1980). The CMB is extraordinarily uniform in temperature across the sky, varying by only ~ 1 part in 105 (Smoot et al., 1992). These small temperature variations correspond to variations in density. Gravity is an attractive force; it will make the rich grow richer. Small density excesses will tend to attract more mass, making them larger, attracting more mass, and leading to the formation of large scale structures, including galaxies. But gravity is also a weak force: this process takes a long time. In the long but finite age of the universe, gravity plus known baryonic matter does not suffice to go from the initially smooth, highly uniform state of the early universe to the highly clumpy, structured state of the local universe (Peebles, 1993). The solution is to boost the process with an additional component of mass — the cold dark matter — that gravitates without interacting with the photons, thus getting a head start on the growth of structure while not aggravating the amplitude of temperature fluctuations in the CMB.

Taken separately, one might argue away the need for dark matter. Taken together, these two distinct arguments convinced nearly everyone, including myself, of the absolute need for non-baryonic dark matter. Consequently, CDM became established as the leading paradigm during the 1980s (Peebles, 1984; Steigman and Turner, 1985). The paradigm has snowballed since that time, the common attitude among cosmologists being that CDM has to exist.

From an astronomical perspective, the CDM could be any slow-moving, massive object that does not interact with photons nor participate in BBN. The range of possibilities is at once limitless yet highly constrained. Neutrons would suffice if they were stable in vacuum, but they are not. Primordial black holes are a logical possibility, but if made of normal matter, they must somehow form in the first second after the Big Bang to not impair BBN. At this juncture, microlensing experiments have excluded most plausible mass ranges that primordial black holes could occupy (Mediavilla et al., 2017). It is easy to invent hypothetical dark matter candidates, but difficult for them to remain viable.

From a particle physics perspective, the favored candidate is a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle (WIMP: Peebles, 1984; Steigman and Turner, 1985). WIMPs are expected to be the lightest stable supersymmetric partner particle that resides in the hypothetical supersymmetric sector (Martin, 1998). The WIMP has been the odds-on favorite for so long that it is often used synonymously with the more generic term ‘dark matter.’ It is the hypothesized particle that launched a thousand experiments. Experimental searches for WIMPs have matured over the past several decades, making extraordinary progress in not detecting dark matter (Aprile et al., 2018). Virtually all of the parameter space in which WIMPs had been predicted to reside (Trotta et al., 2008) is now excluded. Worse, the existence of the supersymmetric sector itself, once seemingly a sure thing, remains entirely hypothetical, and appears at this juncture to be a beautiful idea that nature declined to implement.

In sum, we must have cold dark matter for both galaxies and cosmology, but we have as yet no clue to what it is.


* There is a trope that late in their careers, great scientists come to the opinion that everything worth discovering has been discovered, because they themselves already did everything worth doing. That is not a concern I have – I know we haven’t discovered all there is to discover. Yet I see no prospect for advancing our fundamental understanding simply because there aren’t enough of us pulling in the right direction. Most of the community is busy barking up the wrong tree, and refuses to be distracted from their focus on the invisible squirrel that isn’t there.

** Many of these people are the product of the toxic culture that Simon White warned us about. They wave the sausage of galaxy formation and feedback like a magic wand that excuses all faults while being proudly ignorant of how the sausage was made. Bitch, please. I was there when that sausage was made. I helped make the damn sausage. I know what went into it, and I recognize when it tastes wrong.

Common ground