Jul 112012

Nope, this isn’t about a Gojira song, despite the confusingly similar title of this post. It’s part of our continuing effort to transform ourselves into The Blog of Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Extreme Metal. It’s also about an occurrence that’s so profoundly mind-blowing on so many levels that it could not be ignored: the first observation of Dark Matter – the material that’s theorized to make up 96% of all matter in the universe and that provides the “scaffolding” of the cosmos.

To appreciate the full explosive weirdness of this event requires a bit of back story.

On July 4, 2012, humankind reached a milestone not only in the history of science but also in our understanding of all nature. As we reported in this post, that was the day when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the discovery (at a 99.999% confidence level) of the Higgs boson (a/k/a the “God particle”), a subatomic particle that’s responsible for giving mass to electrons, protons, and neutrons — the fundamental components of all visible matter in the universe.

The existence of the Higgs boson had been predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics in its finalized form since the 1970s, but the boson’s existence had never before been proven and verified. The Standard Model is a theory (though not quite so theoretical any more) about the interaction of three of the four basic forces known in the universe — the forces that describe the interaction of those particles described above. The one fundamental force omitted from the Standard Models’ unification is gravitation, a force described in the general theory of relativity.

I ended that earlier post with a quote from CERN’s press release about the discovery of the Higgs boson — a quote which emphasized that the Standard Model only explains the interaction among the particles that make up all the matter that we can see — and that we can’t see 96% of the matter (or more precisely, “mass-energy”) that makes up the universe; that remaining 96% is the stuff called Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Most experts in this field believe that stuff mainly consists of undiscovered types of particles that are different from those that make up all the matter we’re able to observe. We can’t see it because it apparently doesn’t emit or absorb light or any other electromagnetic radiation at any significant level. But if we can’t see it, how do we know it’s there?

Like the Higgs boson, it’s yet another example of something that scientists have hypothesized must exist, despite the fact that its existence had never been directly observed. Its existence has been inferred since the early 1930s because of its gravitational effect on giant structures in the universe that we can see — things like galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy pop up as the hypothetical explanation for all sorts of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. For example, scientists have developed means of estimating the total mass in various galaxies, and indeed in the universe itself. But the calculated mass is dramatically greater (by roughly a factor of 10) than the mass that can be associated with stars, gas, and dust — the stuff that can be seen. Something must make up the mass we can’t see, but what is it?

To take another example, since the 1990s, astronomical observations have shown that not only is the universe expanding (and has been expanding since the Big Bang), but that it’s expanding at an accelerating rate. In other words, the expansion is speeding up, not slowing down or remaining constant. What’s generating that gravitationally repulsive effect that is driving the observable components of the universe outward?

Here’s one more example. As predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, light from a distant source can be bent by the gravitational effect of massive bodies in between that distant source and an observer. This is called “gravitational lensing”, and it can result in the magnification or distortion of the distant background source of light as it’s observed from Earth. By measuring the distortion, astronomers can estimate the mass of whatever is in between the distant light source and the observer — the mass of the thing that’s curving spacetime and causing light to bend.

In some observed instances, the light from distant clusters of galaxies is being bent by something extraordinarily massive that can’t be seen. What is it that’s causing the light to bend?

And here’s one final example: Astronomers have created 3-D maps of the observable universe, showing the distribution of galaxies. It turns out that galaxies are not randomly distributed within the universe. Instead, galaxies and super-clusters of galaxies are distributed in a branched structure, appearing at what appear to be the intersections of unseen filaments or threads, as if they formed on the framework of some cosmic scaffolding. What is it that’s providing this observed structure to the galactic objects in the universe?

In each of these examples, the hypothesized answer is the same: a combination of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

Now, all of this is pretty mind-blowing to me, but it’s all just background to the real eye-popping shit, which comes next:

A team of astronomers led by Jörg Dietrich at the University of Munich Observatory in Germany have reported the first direct observation of Dark Matter. And they reported this in an article that appeared in a scientific journal called Nature on . . . wait for it . . . July 4, 2012! That’s right — on the same fucking day as the announcement of the discovery of a Higgs boson. In fact, Dietrich’s announcement was somewhat overshadowed by the CERN announcement about the Higgs bosun because both happened on the same day.

Using data from the XMM-Newton spacecraft and the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, processed with a new computer analysis technique, Dietrich and his team were able to observe a filament of dark matter connecting two clusters of galaxies — known as Abell 222 and Abell 223. They were able to observe it in part because the filament is so enormous — 18 megaparsecs long.

Now, when I read this, I didn’t know what a megaparsec was, so I looked it up. A megaparsec is one million parsecs, and a parsec is about 3.26 light-years, and a light-year is about 19.2 trillion miles. So, in miles, 18 megaparsecs is the product of 18 x 1,000,000 x 3.26 x 19.2 trillion — which is just a whole fuckload of miles.

Another factor that enabled the Dietrich team to observe the Dark Matter filament connecting Abell 222 and Abell 223 is described in this quote from one article I read:

“The team was able to observe the dark matter not only because of the vast size of the filament, but because of its orientation: it is perpendicular to Earth, along our line of view. That made it more dense from our perspective, increasing the gravitational lensing that deforms the light of objects behind it. By observing this optical distortion over 40,000 background galaxies, they know that the mass in the filament is between 6.5 × 10^13 and 9.8 × 10^13 times the mass of the Sun.”

Talk about BIG! I want to use ALL the zeroes: This filament is between 65,000,000,000,000 and 98,000,000,000,000 times the mass of our Sun!

So, there you have it: the first direct observation of the previously unseen matter that appears to give structure and shape to the universe, and that makes up the vast majority of all the mass in the universe.

We still don’t know what Dark Matter is made of, but scientists are working on that problem, too.

I guess it goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway: This isn’t music, but it’s definitely metal.

Thanks to NCS reader Gemma  for tipping me to the Dietrich team’s announcement. Here are the sources I used in writing this post:

http://www.nature.com/news/dark-matter-s-tendrils-revealed-1.10951

http://gizmodo.com/5923832/scientists-observe-the-mysterious-hidden-structure-of-the-universe-for-the-first-time-ever

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0705/Cosmic-scaffolding-uncovered-Scientists-find-thread-of-dark-matter

http://www.bostonherald.com/news/national/general/view/20120705dark_matter_filament_found_scientists_say/srvc=home&position=recent

http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_matter.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_matter#cite_note-1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_lensing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsec

32 Responses to “THE HEAVIEST MATTER IN THE UNIVERSE”

  1. Heman Phinehas says:

    As a scientist, I can affirm to whatever Islander said.

  2. SurgicalBrute says:

    Still not as heavy as Disma

  3. Sean says:

    No idea wtf I just read but the pictures were pretty, so that’s cool I guess.

    • Islander says:

      I’m a failure!! :(

      I might have been able to do a better job explaining if I had understood any of it myself. But it sure did seem important.

      • Sean says:

        Na, it’s probably just me. I was always terrible at science, never was interested. Space is cool though.

        For me it’s like, there are people that look at a rollercoaster and want to know how it was built, who built it, and how it works. Me? I’m just here for the ride, man. :P

      • TGLumberjack says:

        If it’s any consolation Islander, I thought you did a fantastic job at explaining it! I’m also an upperclassman engineering major, so I guess I probably have a better working knowledge of physics than your average Joe.

        • Islander says:

          Thanks for that very nice compliment — especially because, before reading the cited sources, most of what I knew about these subjects came from a lot of science fiction reading. :)

  4. BMF says:

    Not here to start a controversy this time… I did a lot of work in astronomy back in high school. We were lucky to have an elective course in the field, and I also took part in a science competition wherein I did astronomy events, so this is a field where I have a lot of interest. I can’t believe this announcement hasn’t been bigger news! Thanks for pointing it out to us, Islander. All we need now is for someone to make a video about this with Gojira in the background. Better still, Gojira should release a video about it!

  5. Demigodraven says:

    I will happily encourage more astronomy related posts here. I studied it a little bit during my time in college and it never ceases to fascinate me as a subject, even if I’m far too stupid to understand the underlying math of it all. I can see why word is taking forever to get out on stuff like this since they’re probably still rechecking every single thing they did on those experiments to make damn sure they got it right, because they could drastically alter a whole field with the stuff that they are confirming here.

    I mean, we won’t see shit from it in our life time but we also haven’t gotten past the moon yet either. But damn, it fucking sounds cool.

    • Islander says:

      I took a course on cosmology in the astronomy department in college and have been fascinated by the subject ever since, even though I quickly realized I didn’t have the brain power to become a cosmologist. I thought becoming a cosmetician was probably more within my reach.

      • Demigodraven says:

        Hey, if you ever open up a No Clean Faces I will happily apply for a job. We have a beauty school just down the street from here that calls me to pick up on debts from the rest of their students anyway, I might as well get my name on the roster.

  6. Kazz says:

    I think these science-related articles are pretty damn cool and you do a good job explaining stuff that I wouldn’t have the patience to look up on my own. Oddly it seems that extreme metal and mind-bending scientific discoveries go hand-in-hand.

    • Kazz says:

      Also, Abyssal’s new album proved to be nice accompaniment while I read this, given that it’s heavy as fuck and really weird, like dark matter.

    • Islander says:

      It seems to me that they go hand in hand, too, but I’m going to have to think more about why I feel that way, and whether there really is a connection, or simply a reflection of the odd assortment of personal interests that people like you and me and others happen to have.

  7. jonesy says:

    Gravitational lensing is the shit! I read a whole book about it. Google “Einnstein ring” images. so cool!

    • Demigodraven says:

      This comment right here needs to be archived for all time, because it will likely be the only recorded occurrence that the phrase ‘Gravitational Lensing is the shit’ will ever be used in reference to anything other than the Solution .45 song.

      • Islander says:

        Oh, you are so right. In fact, that’s our new blog sub-header. And I totally forgot that Solution .45 had a song by that name, probably because I had no idea what gravitational lensing was when For Aeons Past came out. These lyrics now make more sense:

        No sight – unseen
        No light – in between
        Gravitational lensing
        What they see
        Is bent around my lies

      • One wonders if that’s really the only metal song referencing gravitational lensing…

        • Demigodraven says:

          Speaking of, a lot of work involving Chris Alvestam as well as Scar Symmetry in general has been known to get a little heady. Both Holographic Universe and Dark Matter Dimensions were pretty physics based. I think Gravitational Lensing is the only one to actually be so blatant about it, but Holographic Universe covers a lot of those themes as well.

  8. Brian M says:

    Dark matter? Dark energy? LOL. Nah…It is JESUS that makes up 96% of the mass and energy of the universe. You atheist-satanist scientists are just not williong to admit it.

    (j/k).

    I did read somewhere someone claiming that the Strong Force was really Jesus. :)

  9. BurnWithJessu says:

    I recently been reading a lot on cosmology after a bout of solipsism. Fascinating stuff and great post.

  10. This was quite unexpected. Nevertheless, one wishes you success in your endeavour to transform this into The Blog of Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Extreme Metal.

    …Now to returns to one’s regrets of not having taken cosmology, instead of engineering. ( o_o)

  11. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    Not trying to rain on any parades, but it hasn’t been conclusive that the particle was found. They were simply measuring energy signatures and not viewing any particles directly, but all the information isn’t available for scrutiny yet, so who knows…

    http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/technology-blog/higgs-boson-may-not-found-warn-particle-physicists-160943671.html

  12. Heman Phinehas says:

    Is it just me or does anyone else have trouble reading the red font?

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