Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Is the Universe really cloaked in invisible cloth?


This week the science blogs have been alive with conflicting views about dark matter.

Dark matter is the invisible stuff that is supposed to make up around 20% of the Universe. But not everyone is willing to buy the idea that the Universe is cloaked in "invisible cloth." Proponents of an alternative, older theory, modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND), insist theories of dark matter, may simply have no clothes.

The latest MOND vs Dark Matter discussions have been promoted by the publication of a highly controversial paper by University of Maryland astronomer, Stacy McGaugh in the Physical Review Letters, which suggests that for galaxies, MOND fits the facts more reliably than theories of dark matter.

The Weizmann Wave - the blog of the Weizmann Institute, who came up with MOND in 1983 - immediately picked up on this: They wrote:

"Dark matter [...] was thought up to explain a puzzling observation. The amount of mass we can see through our telescopes is not enough to keep galaxies from spinning apart. The existence of great quantities of hidden mass would provide the gravitational pull needed to form those galaxies and enable them to rotate in the way that they do.
[But] an alternate theory, first put forward by Weizmann Institute astrophysicist Prof. Moti Milgrom in 1983, doesn't require dark matter to explain the phenomenon. Instead, it posits that gravity works differently on the intergalactic scale. With a good tweak to Newton's formula, the observed Universe falls into place. This is not the violation of a basic law of physics that it might appear: Milgrom points out that gravity works fine in our every-day world, but the formula breaks down at extremes - at the speed of light or in the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics, for example. So super-galactic scales could be another case in which the rules of gravity simply don't apply quite as Newton wrote them.
While most are still waiting for the hunt for the mysterious dark matter to yield results, a growing minority of physicists are starting to admit that MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) could provide a better explanation."

This view is deeply controversial. Many senior researchers were quick to criticise the media feeding frenzy which surrounded the publication of McGaugh's paper:

In an article on Cosmic Variance blog, Sean Carroll noted:

"McGaugh's new paper doesn't give any evidence at all against dark matter. What it does is to claim that an alternative theory - MOND, which replaces dark matter with a modification of Newtonian dynamics - provides a good fit to a certain class of gas-rich galaxies. That's an interesting result! Just not the result the headlines would have you believe"

In an illuminating post on Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel went one step further, concluding emphatically:

"MOND was designed to work for rotating galaxies. The problem is it doesn't do anything else. And its adherents never point to anything other than rotating galaxies to support it. [...] If you want to be taken seriously as a theory, you need to do more than just the one thing you were designed to do. [...] this isn't to say that MOND isn't an interesting idea, or that the people working on it are frauds. But what's being reported is grossly misleading at best, and blatantly dishonest at worst. General Relativity could still need fixing, and there could be something else going on with gravity beyond dark matter. But we still need dark matter -- or something heretofore indistinguishable from it -- to explain all our large-scale observations."

Phil Plait's analysis on the topic on his well known Bad Astronomy blog is pretty much summed up in the title - "Dark matter is alive and well, thankyouverymuch"

But this isn't a debate which is likely to go away any time soon, so keep an eye on Science blogs for the latest ripostes in the battle of theories.

1 comment:

  1. My problem with DM+GR is not that it does not fit the data.
    My problem is that MOND fits the data without needing DM.
    Since this simple equation works well at the galactic scale everywhere. The fits actually keep on getting better with more data. There can only be two solutions.
    1) DM does not exist at Galactic scale.
    2) DM position in space is defined by BMs position in space. This is simply untenable if we believe DM to be separate particles. Also BM is not supposed to interact with DM except by gravitational force. This is totally non-sensible

    So the real solution is that DM does not exist at the galactic scale.
    I would have had no problem with DM, if MOND did not work so well at galactic scale.

    The fact that MOND does not work as well at cluster or higher scales makes no difference. It is probably an indication that some form of DM exists on those scales. I don’t even think that MOND can be enhanced to form a theory. TeVeS is just a toy theory that shows how to build one, but I am pretty sure the encompassing physical theory will be discovered from a totally unexpected direction. The recent Verlinde’s theory of Entropic gravity looks interesting.

    I liken MOND to an Empirical law. Any quantum theory of gravity needs to bring out MOND or it is not physical. Since GR in its present form does not predict MOND, it is not physical.

    It is as simple as that. Empirical laws must be explained by all physical theories. If Newtons gravitational theory did not explain Kepler’s laws, it would be as useless (at the solar system scale) as GR is presently (at the galactic scale).