Sept 30 2014
So far, we’ve focused on the simplest dark matter models, consisting of one type of object and minimal interactions among individual dark matter particles. However, that’s not how ordinary matter behaves: the interactions among different particle types enable the existence of atoms, molecules, and us. Maybe the same sort of thing is true for dark matter, which could be subject to new forces acting primarily between particles.
Some theories describe a kind of “dark electromagnetism” where particles carry charges like electricity, but they’re governed by a force that doesn’t influence electrons and the like. Just as normal electromagnetism describes light, these models include “dark photons,” which sound like something from the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (after the writers ran out of ideas).
Diagram of a solenoid and its magnetic field lines. The shape of all lines is correct according to the laws of electrodynamics.
Like many WDM candidates, dark photons would be difficult—if not impossible—to detect directly, but if they exist, they would carry energy away from interacting dark matter systems. That would be detectable by its effect on things like the structure of neutron stars and other compact astronomical bodies. Observations of these objects would let researchers place some stringent limits on the strength of dark forces. Another consequence is that dark forces would tend to turn spherical galactic halos into flatter, more disk-like structures. Since we don’t see that in real galaxies, there are strong constraints on how much dark forces can affect dark matter motion.
The “Sombrero” galaxy shows that matter interacting with itself flattens into disks. Dark matter doesn’t seem to do that, limiting the strength of possible interactions between particles.
NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Another side effect of dark forces is that there should be dark antimatter and dark matter-antimatter annihilation. The results of such interactions could include ordinary photons, another intriguing hint in the wake of observations of excess gamma-rays, possibly due to dark matter annihilation in the Milky Way and other galaxies.
What’s cooler than cold dark matter?
While most low-mass particles are “hot,” a hypothetical particle known as the axion is an exception. Axions were first predicted as a solution to a thorny problem in the physics of the strong nuclear force, but certain properties make them appealing as dark matter candidates. Mainly, they are electrically neutral and don’t interact directly with ordinary matter except through gravity.
Axions are also very low-mass (at least in one proposed version), but unlike hot dark matter, they “condensed” in the early Universe into a slow, thick soup. In other words, they behave much like cold dark matter, but without the large mass usually implied by the term.
Axions aren’t part of the Standard Model, but in a sense they’re a minimally invasive addition. Unlike supersymmetry, which involves adding one particle for each type in the Standard Model, axions are just one particle type, albeit one with some unique properties. (To be fair, these aren’t mutually exclusive concepts: it’s possible both SUSY particles and axions are real, and some versions of SUSY even include a hypothetical partner for axions.)
The Standard Model of elementary particles, with the three generations of matter, gauge bosons in the fourth column, and the Higgs boson in the fifth.
Like WDM, axions don’t interact directly with ordinary matter. But according to theory, in a strong magnetic field, axions and photons can oscillate into each other, switching smoothly between particle types. That means axions could be created all the time near black holes, neutron stars, or other places with intense magnetic fields—possibly including superconducting circuits here on Earth. This is how experiments hunt for axions, most notably the Axion Dark Matter eXperiment (ADMX).
So far, no experiment has turned up axions, at least of the type we’d expect to see. Particle physics has a lot of wiggle-room for possibilities, so it’s too soon to say no axions exist, but axion partisans are disappointed. A universe with axions makes more sense than one without, but it wouldn’t be the first time something that really seemed to be a good idea didn’t quite work out.
A physicist’s fear
Long as it is becoming, this list is far from complete. We’ve excluded exotic particles with sufficiently tiny electric charges to be nearly invisible, weird (but unlikely) interactions that change the character of known particles under special circumstances, plus a number of other possibilities. One interesting candidate is jokingly known a WIMPzilla, which consists of one or more particle type more than a trillion times the mass of a proton. These would have been born at a much earlier era than WIMPs, when the Universe was even hotter. Because they are so much heavier, WIMPzillas can be rarer and interact more readily with normal matter, but—as with other more exotic candidates—they aren’t really considered to be a strong possibility.
If the leading ideas for dark matter don’t hold up to experimental scrutiny, then we’ve definitely sailed off the map into the unknown.
Castle Gallery, College of New Rochelle
And more non-WIMP dark matter candidates seem to crop up every year, though many are implausible enough they won’t garner much attention even from other theorists. However, each guess—even unlikely ones—can help us understand what dark matter can be, and what it can’t.
We’ve also omitted a whole other can of worms known as “modified gravity”—a proposition that the matter we see is all there is, and the observational phenomena that don’t make sense can be explained by a different theory of gravity. So far, no modified gravity model has reproduced all the observed phenomena attributed to dark matter, though of course that doesn’t say it can never happen.
To put it another way: most astronomers and cosmologists accept that dark matter exists because it’s the simplest explanation that accounts for all the observational data. If you want a more grumpy description, you could say that dark matter is the worst idea, except for all the other options.
Of course, Nature is sly. Perhaps more than one of these dark matter candidates is out there. A world with both axions and WIMPs—motivated as they are by different problems arising from the Standard Model—would be confounding but not beyond reason. Given the unexpected zoo of normal particles discovered in the 20th century, maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised; after all, wouldn’t it be nice if several of our hypotheses were simultaneously correct for once? (I’m a both/and kind of guy.) More than one type might also help explain why we have yet to see any dark matter in our detectors so far. If a substantial fraction of dark matter particles is made of axions, then the density of WIMPs or WDM must be correspondingly lower and vice versa.
But a bigger worry lurks in the minds of many researchers. Maybe dark matter doesn’t interact with ordinary matter at all, and it doesn’t annihilate in a way we can detect easily. Then the “dark sector” is removed from anything we can probe experimentally, and that’s an upsetting thought. Researchers would have a hard time explaining how such particles came to be after the Big Bang, but worse: without a way to study their properties in the lab, we would be stuck with the kind of phenomenology we have now. Dark matter would be perpetually assigned to placeholder status.
In old maps made by European cartographers, distant lands were sometimes shown populated by monstrous beings. Today of course, everyone knows that those lands are inhabited by other human beings and creatures that, while sometimes strange, aren’t the monsters of our imagination. Our hope is that the monstrous beings of our theoretical space imaginings will some day seem ordinary, too, and “dark matter” will be part of physics as we know it.
See the full article here.
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