Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dark matter goes the way of the Luminiferous Aether

There is now an estimated 3x1022 stars in the known universe. For those of you who are keeping track that’s an increase of 200 sextillion star systems. This has hit all the major news outlets with just about everyone emphasizing that the increased estimate implies more potential life sustaining planets may exist. Not a single article mentioned the most important aspect of this discovery.
More important than the possibility of other potential Earths is the idea that the mystery of the theoretical Dark Matter may also have been solved. So what is this hypothetical Dark Matter and why does it make a difference?
Astronomers have had trouble accounting for observed gravitational effects in many galaxies. These galaxies behave gravitationally as if there is more matter present than we can see. The movements of stars and galaxies, as well as the light from stars around galaxies are all effected by the gravitational pull of matter. Scientists use a collection of formulas based on Newton's Laws and Einstein’s theories of gravity to determine how the stars should be behaving and have found that in every observed system of galaxies and stars (outside of our own) the stars are moving as if there is extra gravity. This means the stars are moving as if there is unseen matter pulling them as only matter warps space-time enough to cause gravitational effects.   
Based on these calculations astronomers have concluded there should be more matter in every galaxy observed. Astronomers and physicists then go on to propose hypothetical “dark matter”, called ‘dark’ because it must be there and we just can’t see because it does not produce or reflect light (like black holes but they are certainly not black holes). [For a collection of possible explanations and candidates for dark matter visit this website: and for a map of the dark matter around 3 of nearest galactic neighbors:]
This new estimate tells us that there is about 60% more matter in the form of red dwarf stars than previously thought. Dark matter estimates are on the order of 85% of the universe. If the known matter of the universe is increased then the unknown amount that is attributed to dark matter must decrease significantly. By how much this unknown amount will decrease is a huge question. Making this new recalculation more difficult is the doubt that will be placed on the estimates of the total number of other stars and massive objects in the universe.
When making an estimate on order of 1020+ any small discrepancy is multiplied tremendously. To be fair it doesn’t eliminate the existence of dark matter but it will make theoretical physicists rethink the possibilities of dark matter and its prevalence. This isn’t the first time physicists have made this kind of mistake.
Before Einstein’s theory of special relativity it was assumed that space was filled with the ‘luminiferous aether’, a hypothetical medium through which light could propagate. What dark matter shares with the ether is a phenomenon in science where theorists invent whatever is necessary to provide a solution for missing knowledge. The question still remains how scientists can still make these errors.
The reason this kind of mistake can happen is that astronomers aren’t necessarily counting every star in a galaxy when they are calculating gravitational forces for example. Instead, an estimate is made based on closer galaxies. Red dwarf stars are dim long lasting stars whose presence is generally estimated in galaxies far away. Based on these estimates gravitation observations are made and matter seems to be missing. Missing matter, or gravitation anomalies can’t exists, so a space-filling matter must be posited to solve the mystery.
There will always be gaps in our knowledge of the universe, mainly because we are so isolated and our attempts to understand the rest of the universe relies heavily on estimates based on what is close to us and what is close to us is no closer that the distance it takes light to travel in a year (5.9 trillion miles). The more we can do to dispel these dark theories the more we can say we have actually knowledge of the universe. Next lets try to get rid of all this ‘dark energy’ nonsense.

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