Every object you've ever seen in your
entire life - your TV, your books, your own body - is built up of three
simple ingredients: protons, neutrons, and electrons. These three
particles even make up the objects we see shining in the daytime and
nighttime skies - the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.
In fact, they are the primary constituents of all visible matter.
Modern cosmology and astrophysics, however, tell us something pretty
remarkable - these three particles are not
the main constituents of the
universe we live in! The universe as a whole is made almost
entirely out of mysterious stuff that no one has ever seen before,
stuff that we call "dark matter" and "dark energy". The protons,
neutrons, and electrons that dominate the world we see around us are
just the glittery icing on a vast universe of darkness.
Our current picture of the "energy budget" of the universe is described
in the pie chart at left. About 70% of the mass of the universe is
believed to be composed of "dark energy", a mysterious substance or
energy field that seems to permeate the universe, causing its expansion
to speed up over time. Something like 25% is composed of "dark
matter" - some sort of stuff that (like ordinary matter) clumps
together under its own gravity, but is somehow invisible to us.
Finally, the remaining 5% or so is ordinary matter - stars, planets,
gas, dust, and all the rest.
This sounds like a crazy idea, but there are actually many good reasons
to believe that it's true! See below for a tour of some of the
arguments that have convinced many scientists that the universe is more
than meets the eye.
One way to look for dark matter is to "simply" count up the total amount
of matter and compare it to the total amount of visible matter - if the
two don't agree, their must be dark matter! Astronomers can
"count" the amount of visible matter using the total
amount of light coming from the galaxy (this isn't as easy as it
sounds, but we won't get into that here). To do the comparison,
need to find some way to independently estimate the total amount of
, visible and
invisible. Two major methods are described below.
Galaxy rotation curves and other
motions in the universe - what can you learn about invisible matter by
watching how visible objects move?
Can we map the distribution of
matter - both visible and invisible - by studying how its gravity bends
the light from distant sources?
The Universe's Baby Pictures
Another way to study the amount of dark matter is to
study its effects on the universe's early history and evolution.
By finding windows onto the state of the universe shortly after its
birth, we can study how it has grown and changed since then. Dark
matter has had major effects on the development and bahavior of the
universe, and by studying these phenomena we can estimate how much dark
matter there is and - perhaps more importantly - what properties it
How much of each kind of chemical
element is there, and what does this tell us about the conditions in
the early universe?
What can the residual "afterglow"
of the Big Bang itself tell us about the composition of the universe?
Large Scale Structure Formation
What effect does dark matter have
on the arrangement of galaxies?
Jeff Filippini, UC Berkeley
Cosmology Group (August 2005)