How to See the Invisible: 3 Approaches to Finding Dark Matter

Spiral galaxy M74 holds 100 billion stars. Oddly, stars at its outer edges rotate with the same velocity as those closer in, suggesting the influence of a substantial mass of unseen dark matter. Credit: NASA
Although we live in a renaissance era of cosmology, in which theories and observations have advanced to the stage where ideas can be precisely tested, we also live in the dark ages. About 23 percent of the universe consists of dark matter, mysterious stuff that exerts gravitational forces but doesn’t interact with light. Ordinary matter makes up just 4 percent. (Another 73 percent is dark energy, an even more mysterious component that permeates the universe.)
The last time something was called “dark” in physics was in the mid-1800s, when Urbain-Jean-Joseph Leverrier of France proposed an unseen dark planet, which he named Vulcan. Leverrier’s goal was to explain the peculiar trajectory of the planet Mercury. Leverrier, along with John C. Adams of England, had previously deduced the existence of Neptune based on its effects on the planet Uranus. Yet he was wrong about Mercury. It turned out that the reason for Mercury’s strange orbit was much more dramatic than the existence of another planet. The explanation could be found only with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The first confirmation that the theory of general relativity was correct came when Einstein proved it could be used it to accurately predict Mercury’s orbit.
It could turn out that dark matter presages a similar paradigm change. Even so, I’d say that it is very likely to have a more conventional explanation, consistent with the type of physical laws we now know. After all, even if novel matter acts in accordance with force laws similar to those we know, why should all matter behave exactly like familiar matter? To put it more succinctly, why should all matter interact with light? If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be the shortsightedness of believing that what we see is all there is...