In 1887, physicists Alfred Michelson and Edward Morley set up an array of prisms and mirrors in an elegant attempt to measure the passage of the Earth through what was then known as “luminiferous ether” – a mysterious substance through which light waves were believed to propagate, like sound waves through air.
The experiment should have worked, but in one of the most famous results of Nineteenth Century physics no ether movement was detected. That was a head-scratcher until 1905, when Albert Einstein took the results at face value and used them as a cornerstone in developing his theory of relativity.
Today, physicists are hunting for two equally mysterious commodities: dark matter and dark energy. And maybe, suggests a recent line of research from astrophysicist André Maeder at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, they too don’t exist, and scientists need to again revise their theories, this time to look for ways to explain the universe without the need for either of them.
Dark matter was first proposed all the way back in 1933, when astrophysicists realised there wasn’t enough visible matter to explain the motions of stars and galaxies. Instead, there appeared to be a hidden component contributing to the gravitational forces affecting their motion. It is now believed that even though we still have not successfully observed it, dark matter is five times more prevalent in the universe than normal matter.
Dark energy came into the picture more recently, when astrophysicists realised that the expansion of the universe could not be explained without the existence of some kind of energy that provides a repulsive force that steadily accelerates the rate at which galaxies are flying away from each other. Dark energy is believed to be even more prevalent than dark matter, comprising a full 70% of the universe’s total mass-energy.
Maeder’s argument, published in a series of papers this year in The Astrophysical Journal is that maybe we don’t need dark matter and dark energy to explain these effects. Maybe it’s our concept of Einsteinian space-time that’s wrong.
His argument begins with the conventional cosmological understanding that the universe started with a Big Bang, about 13.8 billion years ago, followed by continual expansion. But in this mode, there is a possibility that hasn’t been taken into account, he says: “By that I mean the scale invariance of empty space; in other words the empty space and its properties do not change following a dilation or contraction.”
If so, that would affect our entire understanding of gravity and the evolution of the universe.
Based on this hypothesis, Maeder found that with the right parameters he could explain the expansion of the universe without dark energy. He could also explain the motion of stars and galaxies without the need for dark matter.
To say that Maeder’s ideas are controversial is an understatement. Katie Mack, an astrophysicist at the University of Melbourne on Australia, calls them “massively overhyped.” And physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, Germany, wrote that while Maeder “clearly knows his stuff,” he does not yet have “a consistent theory.”
Specifically, Mack notes that the strongest evidence for dark matter comes not from the motions of stars and galaxies, “but from the behavior of matter on cosmological scales, as measured by signatures in the cosmic microwave background and the distribution of galaxies.” Gravitational lensing of distant objects by nearer galaxies also reveals the existence of dark matter, she says.
Also, she notes that while there are a “whole heap” of ways to modify Einstein’s theories, these are “nothing new and not especially interesting.”
The challenge, she says, is to reproduce everything, including “dark matter and dark energy’s biggest successes.” Until a new theory can produce “precise agreement” with measurements of a wide range of cosmic variables, she says, there’s no reason “at all” to throw out the existing theory.
Dark matter researcher Benjamin Roberts, at the University of Reno, Nevada, US, agrees. “The evidence for dark matter is very substantial and comes from a large number of sources,” he says. “Until a single theory can explain all of these observations, there is no reason to doubt the existence of dark matter.”
That said, this doesn’t mean that “new physics” theories such as Maeder’s should be ignored. “They should be, and are, taken seriously,” he says.
Or as Maeder puts it, “Nothing can ever be taken for granted.”
Richard A Lovett
Richard A. Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to COSMOS.
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