Watch, listen and read the full transcript of experimental physicist Laura Baudis’ TEDx Talk: Exploring The Vast Dark Universe at TEDxCERN Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Exploring the vast dark universe by Laura Baudis at TEDxCERN conference
How often do you find time to gaze into the stars?
Last February, I spent a few cold days high up on a mountain here in Switzerland, and when I looked out at the sky in a dark, clear night, I saw thousands of glimmering light sources and even the extended nebulous band of the Milky Way. This nebula is made of 100 billion stars and forms a spiral system — our home galaxy.
I am sure that every one of you had at least once such an awe-inspiring experience. Now we cannot easily see the entire structure of the Milky Way for we are part of it. We, together with our Solar System, are located in the stellar disc, and we move around the Galactic Center with 220 kilometers per second.
But to give you an idea, it would look very much like our close neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. You can see here its beautiful, spiral arm structure, but you cannot see such an image with the naked eye. But with today’s advanced telescopes, we can map not only Andromeda and the Milky Way but our entire observable universe in many different wavelengths from radio waves to the very high-energy gamma rays gathering information through the observation of electromagnetic radiation. And we can produce countless, beautiful, and useful pictures of the cosmos.
But today, we also know that what we see is not the whole picture. In fact, why would we even assume that what we can directly observe is all that there is? History has overthrown our most basic assumptions many times, it has told us that the Earth is not at the center of the Solar System, that our Sun is at the outskirts of the Milky Way, and that our own galaxy is but one in two trillions of galaxies in the observable universe. That’s why would matter that radiates or that absorbs electromagnetic radiation be the dominant form of matter in the cosmos. It was back in 1933, when a Swiss-American astronomer, Fritz Zwicky, discovered that something strange was going on in a rich cluster of galaxies, the Coma Cluster. He studied the motion of individual galaxies in this cluster and found out that their speeds were far too high that galaxies should simply fly apart. The speeds were much higher than predicted, based on the luminous matter alone.
He concluded that there must be some new form of matter, he called it dark matter, and which, like a glue, keeps all these galaxies in the cluster together. Now Zwicky was brilliant and very much ahead of his time, but he was not an easy person to get along with. He had remained true to his nature, the mountaineering, and was often inclined to provocation. For instance, he called his colleagues, ‘spherical bastards’ and perhaps, these are some of the reasons why his results went largely unnoticed until the 70s when Vera Rubin and her team measured the rotational velocities of stars and gas in spiral galaxies. And she came to the same astonishing conclusion: galaxies were filled with this new substance, with dark matter. The stars and the gas at the outer edges, including our own Sun, would simply fly apart if galaxies were dominated by visible matter alone.
Today, many decades later, we have an overwhelming number of observations on all astronomical scales and we know that most of the matter in our universe, namely, 85% is dark or invisible. We know that dark matter is out there because of its gravitational pull on visible matter, such as stars, and galaxies, and interstellar gas. Dark matter influences and distorts how visible matter moves and clusters. And these are effects that we can directly observe, but quite incredibly, more than 80 years after Fritz Zwicky’s initial discovery, we are yet to answer the most fundamental question of all: What is dark matter? What is it made of? What is its true nature?
Before we continue, let’s pause for a moment and remind ourselves what normal matter is made of: stars, gas, planets, and people. Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons; and protons and neutrons are made of quarks. In this beautiful, colorful chart, you can see all the known elementary particles: the quarks in the top half, the leptons in the bottom half, the force carriers and the Higgs boson discovered here at CERN, in 2012.
Can any of these particles be the dark matter? No. Today, we know that none of the familiar particles is a good candidate. However, physicists have a vivid imagination, and many other possibilities were proposed. The most popular candidates are weakly interacting massive particles also known as WIMPs. As their name suggests, they scatter only rarely with normal matter, and they are heavier than a proton, perhaps 100 or 1,000 times heavier.
WIMPs are an example for the so-called cold dark matter, which means, that under the influence of gravity, they produce exactly the structures that we observe today. Now all these elementary particles were produced in our young and hot universe about one billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Our young cosmos was very energetic, and other fundamental particles, heavy particles such as WIMPs, were likely produced at the same time. If these particles are stable, they might still be around today and formed the halos of galaxies, including the halo of our own Milky Way, we thus have very good reasons to believe that a new, yet undiscovered particle might be a prime candidate for this mysterious dark matter. And this is really the simplest solution of all: the dark matter made of a new particle which does not emit nor absorb any light.