Your 7-Step Guide to the Shadow Universe

By Corey S. Powell | April 8, 2013 4:17 pm

Five-sixths of the universe is missing. That statement feels strange to write, and I’m sure it feels pretty strange to read as well. Given the vastness of the cosmos–and given how little of it humans have explored–how can we know for sure that anything is out of place? The claim sounds positively arrogant, if not delusional.

Color-coded, composite of the galaxy cluster Abell 520. Green denotes hot gas; orange highlights starlight from galaxies; blue shows the inferred location of dark matter. (Credit: NASAESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee, and A. Mahdavi)

And yet scientists have assembled a nearly airtight case that the majority of the matter in the universe consists dark matter, a substance which is both intrinsically invisible and fundamentally different in composition than the familiar atoms that make up stars and planets. In the face of staggering difficulties, researchers like Samuel Ting of MIT are even making progress in figuring out what dark matter is, as evidence by teasing headlines from last week. Time to come to terms, then, with the new reality about our place in the universe. Here are seven key things every informed citizen of the cosmos should know.

1 Dark matter is real. The evidence for dark matter goes all the way back to a paper published by visionary Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933–less than a decade after Edwin Hubble definitively proved the existence of other galaxies. Zwicky noticed that galaxies in clusters were moving so quickly that the clusters should be flying apart, and yet the clusters remain intact. He concluded that there must be dunkle Materie (dark matter) scattered through the clusters, providing the extra gravitational pull that holds everything together. At the time, most of Zwicky’s colleagues considered the evidence too tentative, and the idea too weird, to believe. In the 1970s, American astronomer Vera Rubin changed their minds with the same kind of observations carried out in much greater detail. She found that galaxies systematically rotate so quickly that they should fly apart unless bound together by dark matter–or unless our understanding of the laws of gravity are wrong. More recently, astrophysicists have run elaborate computer models of how galaxies form. These models beautifully fit the observed structure of the universe, but only if they include dark matter into their equations.

Galaxy rotation

Stars in the outer regions of spiral galaxy M74 move much more quickly than expected if they were held in orbit only by the visible matter. The best explanation is that they are being pulled by a large halo of unseen, dark matter. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/GMOS Team)

Two other lines of evidence strongly support dark matter. One comes from observations of gravitational lensing, the bending of light due to gravity. Astronomers can make crude maps of where the matter is in galaxy clusters by observing how they distort the light of more distant galaxies. These maps not only confirm the presence of huge amounts of dark matter, they also show that the dark stuff moves independently from hot gas in the cluster, something that alternate theories of gravity cannot easily explain. Another, completely independent line of evidence comes from studies of the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the Big Bang. The distribution of that radiation on the sky is very sensitive to the exact composition of the early universe. The observed pattern allows a very precise measurement of the makeup of the universe, as I described recently, in which dark matter outweighs visible matter by a factor of 5.5 to 1. All three types of observations not only show evidence of dark matter, they also show the same amount of dark matter. That’s awfully persuasive.

2. Dark matter can be visible…sometimes. That sounds like a contradiction of all that I’ve just said, so bear with me. Dark matter seems not to interact with light or any other form of electromagnetic radiation (radio, x-rays, etc), but it may be able to interact with itself. One of the leading theories of dark matter holds that it consists of fundamental particles called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) that can destroy each other if they happen to smack into each other. In the vastness of space, particles don’t collide very often but it will inevitably happen occasionally. If two WIMPs annihilate each other, they might create visible radiation in the form of gamma rays; or they might give rise to more familiar types of particles, such as electrons and their antimatter partners, positrons.

In fact, two space-based experiments are currently looking for both signals, and both see some intriguing signs of something strange going on in the depths of space. NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope has picked up an extremely faint but unusual glow of gamma rays having a very specific energy: 130 giga-electron volts (GeV), or about 60 billion times the energy of visible light. That looks a lot like the breakdown of a dark-matter particle, but Christoph Weniger of the Max-Planck Institute for Physics cautions that the evidence right now “is as ambiguous as it can be.” Further hints of dark matter come from Samuel Ting and the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, experiment aboard the International Space Station. That’s the one that just made headlines last week. (New York Times: “Tantalizing New Clues into the Mysteries of Dark Matter”.) AMS is picking up a slight excess of positrons from all directions of the sky, which is again consistent with the presence of dark matter but not yet at all conclusive. Stay tuned for more results; Ting says it will take “several more years” before he has enough data to say for sure.


The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment (top left) aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA/AMS)

3. Dark matter might show up here on Earth. In theory, we are swimming in dark matter all the time. It should be passing through you right now. Because dark matter is so unreactive, most of the time it keeps going and nobody here is any the wiser for it. But starting in the 1990s, a few hardy (or foolhardy, depending on your perspective) physicists decided to try to sense dark matter particles as they pass. The idea is that on very rare occasions, a dark matter particle might strike an atom of ordinary matter, giving it a kick. That could potentially be detected as a thermal signal: a minuscule dose of heat. Several experiments along these lines have claimed tentative sightings of dark matter signals. The most celebrated results have come from the detector known as DAMA, short simply for DArk MAtter. Beyond a core of true believers, nobody considers these results convincing, however. A new experiment called LUX should clarify the situation. “The sensitivity is significantly better than previous direct detection experiments,” promises LUX principle investigator Richard Gaitskell of Brown University. By the time LUX finishes its first full run in 2015 it will be, he hopes, “a very definitive experiment.”

4. We might be able to create our own dark matter. That is one of the great goals for the ambitious Large Hadron Collider: making dark matter in the lab so that scientists can study it. The core concept of the LHC is that the mad smashing of particles into other particles will shake loose all kinds of things that do not show up in the calm and quiet of everyday physics. In essence, the huge amounts of energy created at the LHC can be spontaneously transformed into various particles (mass and energy being equivalent–remember your e=mc²?). That is how the physicists at the LHC (probably) found the Higgs Boson. If WIMPs have the kinds of masses that theorists expect, the LHC should create them too. Such dark matter particles will be hard to track down, because of their elusive nature. They tend to fly right out of the detectors, unseen, and so would initially show up as missing energy in the LHC reactions: One more shadow to chase. Still, if the WIMPs really are there, the crafty researchers and enormous computers that sift through data from the LHC should be able to find them when the collider restarts in 2015.

5. Dark matter is a totally different thing than dark energy. In 1998, two competing teams of cosmologists discovered that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. The force behind that cosmic expansion is now known as “dark energy,” a term that was coined by Michael Turner at the University of Chicago as a deliberate (if sometimes confusing) counterpoint to dark matter. Both are dark in the sense that they are unseen, and both are dark in the sense that they are mysterious. But dark matter seems to consist of some sort of particles, and it exerts a gravitational pull that tends to bring things together: it glues together galaxies and galaxy clusters, and may have provided the extra attraction that allowed these structures to form in the first place. Dark energy, on the other hand, is even less well understood but it seems to be a form of energy that is embedded into the fabric of space itself, and it exerts a repulsive force–almost like antigravity–over extremely long distances. To add further confusion, dark energy has the equivalent of mass (if you didn’t remember your e=mc² before, try remembering it now) and when you total up all that mass, dark energy is the dominant component of the universe.

6. The dark stuff really dominates. Based on the latest observations from the Planck observatory, the universe consists of 68.3 percent dark energy, 26.8 percent dark matter, and 4.9 percent ordinary matter. A little perspective: More than 95 percent of the universe is dark and fundamentally unobservable, most of the universe does not consist of matter, and most of the matter does not consist of atoms like the ones that make up you and me. Feeling insignificant yet?

7. The dark universe might have a life of its own. A few years back, Savas Dimopoulos of Stanford University postulated that dark matter could form dark atoms that create their own dark chemistry. Neal Weiner at NYU has kicked around the thought problem of how a hypothetical scientist composed of dark matter might be able to find the visible universe (which of course would be invisible to him or her). The answer: It wouldn’t be easy. And just recently a group of Harvard University physicists led by JiJi Fan and Lisa Randall have theorized that some dark matter might be able to cool and collapse just the way ordinary hydrogen gas does, leading to the possibility of dark galaxies, perhaps even dark stars and dark planets.

Right now nobody knows. Perhaps these ideas are just flights of fantasy, but they are fantasies that are consistent with what we currently understand about how the universe works. In fact, they are supported by some of the best available current observations. Douglas Finkbeiner, an astrophysicist at Harvard, neatly sums up the wonder and uncertainty of this kind of research: “We should all be lying in bed awake wondering what dark matter is.”

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • Buddy199

    Is consciousness connected to dark matter or energy? The actual “experience” of consciousness, memory and sensation, while connected to matter, cannot be directly observed as ordinary matter or energy can. We can measure and observe the anatomy and chemistry associated with consciousness but the very real “ghost” within that machine remains invisible to direct detection. Is it part of the invisible five sixth’s?

    • Ben Jones

      Buddy: no.

      • Buddy199

        Well, that clears that up. Any other profound mysteries of the universe you can unravel?

        • Emkay

          I had a bowl of dark matter for lunch, it tastes sorta’ like chicken….

      • Day Tooley

        Ben, if you can’t contribute to a discussion, just pass.

      • Andrew Befus

        Ben: correct. It is highly unlikely that an explanation for one poorly understood thing will be found by supposition with another poorly understood thing. And untestable hypotheses are useless.

        • Scott Bergquist

          Excellent point.

    • Corey C.

      A better (if less amusing) answer to this question might be: Neat idea, but at this time there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that. Further, considering the current state of neuroscience, it seems unlikely that anything so exotic is required to explain what appear to be simple neurochemical processes.

      • Buddy199

        You’re missing the point. Neurobiology and chemistry are closely associated with cognitive awareness. But they are not cognitive awareness itself. Simply put, a neuron is visible under a microscope, neurotransmitters can be isolated and physically analyzed. The same cannot be said for the very real phenomena of sensory awareness, memory, cognition in general – the essence of what we consider our individuality. Can you see a memory under a microscope, or bottle a thought in a test tube? No, just the anatomy or chemistry associated with them. So exactly “where” are the cognitions?

        • Joseph Colasuonno Jr

          when a bacteria evolves changes it happens all around the world at once i never heard of a radio or tv wave being used for this process(it could b dark energy )all life than could uses d. energy.Than people who have died n come back seem to travel thru a tunnel(wormhole)tosome other deminsion more real than this world.could this b the dark matter world they were just talking about?

        • John Campanella

          I feel your pain dude – I’ve outgrown theology a long time ago and went from atheist to agnostic and now I’m an atheist again. But honestly, I can’t write off the crazy unexplainable craziness that is consciousness. It’s like all us skeptical smart people learn so much about life while forgetting life itself in a way.

          I’ve been getting into Biocentrism. My friends probably go to sleep thinking about their girlfriends or video games or work. Me? I’m thinking about society and the cosmos and ask myself repeatedly: What is the point of all this? How does anything exist at all? Where is the universe? Most, most most of all: How am I alive? And it just gets weird talking to yourself because the questions are so grand and so mysterious.

          • Buddy199

            Why are the two things that are the most central to your being – life itself and consciousness – also its most unfathomable aspects? “Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century” is the best book I’ve come across that tries to address some of these ideas.

          • Bharati_shahida

            Agreed. Sounds entirely like Hinduism’s core questions and hence Hindus appreciate that theology / beliefs /names need not be fixed. Unlike monotheism, there are no saviours and actually only you are real. For now.

          • Lionheart777

            You had the answer, John, and threw it away. Doesn’t all this inexplicability suggest that there is a God and He’s reaching out to you. Knock at the door and He’ll answer it. However, you have to knock, and that takes humility.

        • Emkay

          The cognitions you mention only exist in the anatomy or chemistry associated with them. A thought or memory can only be recalled by the same person having the memory or thought. This ‘process happens electrically at the cellular level in your nerves and brain, and can only exist when you are alive… this is purely an anatomical process (like vision). A plastic box with plates and cells and connections is only matter..but when charged with a flow of electrons, it becomes ‘alive with electricity, so to speak.

          However, when I hold out my arm and look at the palm of my hand and see ‘nothing between my eyes and my palm, it is hard for me to imagine that 5/6ths of the universe is there? Personally, I’m reaching for the bullshit flag….

          • Buddy199

            You can’t see x-rays or cosmic rays but they are there. Cognitions are the result of anatomical processes but are more than that, being completely non-physical, or of a physical nature that so far is completely undetectable. All the chemistry associated with the senses can be observed under a microscope or contained in a test tube. However, the experience of “red” or “sweet” cannot. It’s real, obviously. It cannot be isolated or directly observed physically. So, it’s not physical matter, or just the matter associated with cognition. By the process of elimination, it is something existing outside the physical world.

          • Emkay

            If the universe represents infinite largeness, then infinite smallness must also can divide an atom into smaller and smaller halves, but it will never be nothing..

            The only thing that exists outside of the physical world is time….

          • Scott Bergquist

            Forget all this, Buddy199. Dark matter is not going to give you eternal life, another “place” to go when you die. Without your memory, who are you? And, memory has been identified as strictly biochemical. And what is consciousness? The “remembered present”. Attempting to remove “consciousness” from its underpinnings of calcium ions, thousands of enzymes that interact, you aren’t going to find a simple answer in “dark matter” or dark energy. By analogy, we all know what an aircraft carrier is, and we know planes land and take off, and the ship is propelled through the water by a power source, etc. But you don’t need to understand how many stairs and stairways there are on board, to understand how it works.

            Same with consciousness and memory. If an ant moves away from fire, it demonstrates “consciousness”. Don’t get too much woo factor going, pursuing an afterlife.

            Sorry to disappoint you and your hopes for your “self” to pass into an unexplained realm. When we die, our memories stay within the body, just like your nose stays on your face…not “flying off into the next realm”.

          • Corey C.

            This just isn’t true. The experience of “red” is a pattern of biochemical reactions that occur in the brain when you see something red. It can be measured, and it can be reproduced. There’s absolutely no evidence to support the belief that “consciousness” is anything more than this.

          • Godbluff

            A biochemical event like the one your describe can take place unconsciously in the brain. Being conscious of it is a very different thing, and we don’t yet know what that difference is. Yet that difference brings with it a universe.

          • Corey C.

            You’re still missing the point. Plenty of biochemical reactions take place without interacting with the biochemical reactions that cause me to type these words, but those aren’t relevant to this discussion, because we have no way to know if they’re conscious of happening or not. The ones that we’re talking about are the ones that are, for example, currently selecting the words of this message. If I was hooked up to an MRI, scientists could watch different parts of my brain light up as I think about what words I want to say. That right there is consciousness happening.

          • Godbluff

            I know what you’re saying. I am fascinated by neuroscience, but I am totally unconvinced. What you are seeing is brain activity associated with consciousness, not consciousness itself. I think the leap of faith is too much. You could theoretically build a robot brain that clearly has activity in certain places according to the activity being process. That doesn’t mean it is conscious in the way we are. Consciousness is a state of being that is really not easy to measure or quantify.
            Daniel Dennett said that we (humans) now know what it is like, for example, to be a bat, because we can visualise a model of what it it might feel like to be a bat, because we understand it physical neurology. He couldn’t have been more wrong in my opinion. All we can ever visualise is ‘ourselves visualising ourselves as a bat, which is, in essence, nothing whatsoever like a bat’. There are real problems with locating that strange snake-eating-its-tale creation of subjective self out of objective data. I’m not saying they won’t work this out, and we may be indeed hot on its trail, but to say we know what consciousness is is still like knowing how to lift yourself off the ground.

          • Corey C.

            You bring up some interesting points. I largely agree with you on the bat thing: the human brain will always operate like the human brain, not the bat brain; we have human bodies, not bat bodies; and we have a whole history of being raised within human society, not raised however bats are. As human beings, it’s simply impossible for us to understand the experience of being a bat without filtering it through human perception and neurology, because human perception and neurology are the only ways we have to understand the world.

            As for a robot brain, I agree that we have no way of knowing with absolute certainty if such a thing would truly be conscious in the way we are. However, I have no way of knowing with absolute certainty that you, or anyone else, is conscious in the same way I am. My consciousness is the only one I can actually perceive, but based on observed behavior of other humans, it seems like the most rational conclusion at this time is that other humans are also conscious.

            If we could build a robot brain that perfectly mimicked human behavior and exhibited equivalent internal processes when doing so, then we couldn’t know for sure whether it was conscious in the same way we are any more than we can truly know that other humans are; however, the most rational conclusion would be to go with the weight of the evidence. If everything we can observe shows the robot brain doing all the same things the human brain does, then it’s also most likely conscious in the same way a human brain is.

            It’s natural to be resistant to that idea, because human beings like to believe we’re somehow “special”, above and separate from all the other things that exist in the universe. But there’s not one shred of evidence to suggest that; it’s something humans believe purely out of ego. There’s simply no reason to believe that a brain made out of meat magically creates consciousness, but a brain made out of silicon wouldn’t. That’s nothing more than human arrogance.

            For me, the bottom line is this: If consciousness is not an emergent property of neurochemistry, then what is it? I’m willing to consider alternatives, but the only alternative answer I’ve ever encountered is that consciousness is the “soul”. In choosing between a proven, mostly understood scientific process and a supernatural phenomenon that there is absolutely no evidence in support of, I find siding with neuroscience to be a far more rational option. Now, believing in the soul — That’s what I call a big leap of faith.

          • Godbluff

            I have to say, I am not a supernaturalist in any way, so I don’t seek a ‘soul’ in any mystical context (though I accept both the word soul and spirit in relation to those aspects of being such a love and hope, for example, which really aren’t easily pinpointed physically or empirically yet – despite the neurological information we try and match). I’m not interested in ‘hoping’ for anything, but I am aware that science has ended up going down some very counter-intuitive avenues.

            It was concluded by perfectly logical and intelligent people, at a certain point in history, that illness, for example, arose naturally and spontaneously from the flesh. And that’s because that is exactly how it looked. If you had told them that it could actually be caused by tiny, invisible flying creatures that enter your blood they would have thought you to be way off the mark, if not downright crazy. But microscopes gave us something of a surprise, and now we have the germ theory of illness.

            I don’t think it’s human arrogance to think there ‘may’ be something unusual or different about the nature of consciousness – even to the extent that we have to look at the accepted paradigms by which we judge the relationship off matter to thought. Imagination is the starting point for science, and if we only worked with what we know, we would be more conservative in our ability to come up with hypotheses. The idea that physiological links to consciousness have been found is interesting, and it may indeed be a final frontier finally being understood, but I personally don’t see why assuming that observing the parts gives us the whole picture. As Douglas Adams said, ‘if you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.’

            The whole thing reminds me of the way that some scientists conclude that if can create a mathematical model of how the beginning of the big bang occurred – that is, how time and space came out of nothing for no reason other than chance – then you’ve explained why there is a universe. But actually there are similar problems with this too. I think we are good at locating pieces of the jigsaw, and putting them in the right places. We might even put every piece together one day. But I think why there is a jigsaw can be asked without recourse to deeply unfalsifiable religious notions either.

          • Corey C.

            Fair enough. I look at it as a matter of applying Occam’s Razor. It often gets bastardized a bit in popular quotations, but Wikipedia puts it pretty well: “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” If consciousness can be sufficiently explained by the data we have — which in my opinion, it can be — postulating that consciousness is instead due to some kind of as-yet-undiscovered phenomenon that there’s no evidence of is simply an unnecessary, unjustified assumption. Whether you call it a “soul” or something else, it seems to me to be less about trying to understand the subject rationally and more about a desire to not reduce our humanity to something quantifiable, as if that lessens it somehow.

            To be clear, I’m not saying we should rule out any possibility that there’s more to consciousness than we understand. There is always going to be more for us to learn about the universe, and we’re always going to be discovering that conclusions we made in the past that seemed right based on the information at the time didn’t quite tell the whole story. Usually there will be some contradictions to clue us in, though. For example, if disease sprung up spontaneously from within our own flesh, why did people tend to get sick after they’ve been around other sick people? Based on that hypothesis, contagion is not just unexplained; it’s inexplicable.

            When it comes to consciousness, there may be parts that have not been fully explained yet, but I’m not aware of any that appear inexplicable under our current understanding of neurology and biochemistry. Then again, I’m also not a neuroscientist. If you know of any such fundamental flaws, I’d be curious to hear about them.

            I’m not going to absolutely rule out the possibility that consciousness derives from a different source than all our current science indicates, but if I had to place a bet based on what we do know so far, I think it’s pretty clear that the smart money would be on “biochemical process”.

          • Godbluff

            I’m probably sounding like what Dennett describes as the ‘mysterons’. That is, people who add mysteries where there is no need for them, but i still think, despite his enormous knowledgeability, that there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking the physical scaffolding and the end product are the same thing. I personally think there could be a ‘trap’ there, similar to thinking that the Earth looked flat because, well, it really, really looked that way in the past. It’s not a belief that the mind is somewhere else, other than the neurons. I think the meaning of the word ‘somewhere’ doesn’t suit the experience or desription of mind.

            The universe as we know it only exists precisely because we know it. I know that one line of reasoning says it was there before us, but I think this illogical – how could it possibly have been? At best, there was only some indescribable energies (to call them light and sound, for example, is nonsensical) waiting to be turned into sensory information that a consciousness would assign the word ‘existence’ to. When scientists say there was light before eyes to see light, I think they are overlooking one of the fundamental problems with describing and understanding consciousness. And I’m not being philosophical, just logical.

            I find a good novel or work of art says more about what a consciousness actually ‘is’ than a map of synapses going on and off, and though that kind of knowledge is no good to, say, an anaesthetist, but I don’t think it’s as flaky and vague as empirical science would have us think either.

            Here’s a nice song about not being sure.


          • Corey C.

            The suggestion that the universe didn’t exist before humanity is obviously intrinsically untestable by humanity, but again it seems to stem from humanocentrism — an arrogant and misguided belief that the entire universe revolves around us just because we like to feel special. This seems extraordinarily unlikely (what are the odds that out of all the things in the universe, we just happen to be the only ones that matter?), and goes against every shred of evidence we have regarding the history of the universe.

            Whether humans have words for things has no bearing whatsoever on whether they exist. This should be pretty obvious, as we have to make up new words to describe things we discover all the time.

            If telling yourself this sort of mystical nonsense makes you feel better about your life, that’s your prerogative, but don’t come to a science site and expect anyone else to pretend that there’s anything logical or rational about your fantasies.

          • Gary Spencer

            Oh dear. I really am not interested in the mystical or believing in things for the sake of it. Honestly. My view is based on rationalised logic. The thing WE know to be universe, AS we know it – which is the ONLY way we know it – is human-centric whether you like that idea or not. It’s nothing to do with arrogance. A dog’s universe is dog-centric, and an ant’s is ant-centric too. It is impossible for us to see ‘outside’ our own senses, or our own inner cognition of those senses or own mental languages of thought that deal with reflections on that cognition or thought. Really. Explain to me how we get around it. It perhaps becomes a philosophical problem akin to the old ‘falling tree not being heard because no one is there to hear it’. Though a falling tree and it’s sound is very much part of our model and experience of of the world so it’s not entirely appropriate.

            Surely it’s more arrogant to inflict our ‘conscious viewpoint’ onto a universe (past or otherwise) that doesn’t contain consciousness. That also seems MORE human-centric to me. There is a really interesting problem with the notion of consciousness and I have yet to see many scientists tackle it, due to this simple but significant logical problem. If you want to overlook this issue, as many (but not all) scientists do, and look at it mechanistically rather that qualitatively, then you are free to do so. Or argue around it by believing that our assumptions about existence and it’s relationship to consciousness are explained through projections and extrapolations based on what we are conscious of now.

            I’m really not saying the universe didn’t exist before we became its ‘eyes’ looking back at itself either (as the great Carl Sagan describes us – ‘we are the means by which the universe has come to know itself’), but to say that it ‘had’ the same qualitative nature as the one that comes through the windows of our senses now seems deeply flawed in thinking to me. It’s not woo. It’s just simple logic. We are projecting, human-centrically, onto a vast sea of something extraordinarily mysterious into which we may be only ‘ankle deep’. And human-centricity is a natural and unavoidable by-product of our particular type of consciousness/universe experience. I see absolutely no way around it.

          • Corey C.

            If your argument is that, as human beings, our subjective understanding of the universe is human-centric, and that most humans aren’t psychologically capable of understanding concepts that they don’t have words for, then fine. I don’t have any major disagreement with those ideas.

            However, you explicitly said in an earlier post that “I know that one line of reasoning says [the universe] was there before us, but I
            think this illogical – how could it possibly have been? At best, there
            was only some indescribable energies (to call them light and sound, for
            example, is nonsensical) waiting to be turned into sensory information […]”

            I realize you probably didn’t mean to suggest that the universe did not exist at all before humans, but that statement does appear to suggest that you believe that photons were not photons, and did not have the physical properties that photons possess, until human beings named them. I can almost guarantee that photons existed, and behaved the same way, before human beings discovered them. The fact that we didn’t have a word for them yet has no bearing on their existence.

            You seem to be confusing what’s known to humans with what exists. The one has no bearing on the other. Photons existed long before life forms evolved eyes capable of detecting them, let alone brains with the capacity to name them.

            If you disagree with that, you’re basically saying that the nature of the universe is defined by what we believe. Considering the history of science is based on discovering that everything we believed was wrong, that position can’t really be defended rationally. It’s the very definition of “woo”, as you put it.

          • Gary Spencer

            No. The nature of the universe is defined by our ability to make a mental model of it based on our senses and intellectual extrapolations based on those sensations – including maths. I don’t think belief has anything to do with it. There is a problem defining the ‘quality’ (for want of a batter word) of where consciousness ‘meets’ reality that science, as it stands within its current paradigms, seems happy to ignore. I’m not suggesting a silopsistic universe, but I personally find the current model conveniently side-steps these issues, dismissing them as philosophy or ‘woo’. The idea that we are simply ‘picking’ up what is ‘objectively there’ with ‘objective’ sensations of it feels problematic to me. There is an inevitable and perhaps unsurmountable ‘translation of reality’ going on that is tied to our biology. Thinking otherwise seems like woo to me.

          • lambchowder

            There’s no evidence one way or the other. Pointing to physical phenomenon in the brain does not explain why someone perceives the qualia of color in the way they do, just that their is activity in the brain

        • jsky

          i think your missing the point.
          just like the dark matter or dark energy we can find evidence (if not visible) of these phenomena through experiments. so we know they are there. you ask where are they? they are here! why must you theorise they are interacting with dark matter/energy? they may be, but there is no reason/need for you to suggest they could be.
          A dog is a dog because we label it that way. So is consciousness. That’s not to say these things cant be explained by probing their elements. So consciousness would be made of self awareness, etc etc, and those things are made from neuron interaction. It just so happens that the systems are so very complex that we haven’t been able to fully explain them properly yet. That doesn’t mean we have to bring dark matter into the equation. Unless there is some reasonable hypothesis to.
          But i think the more interesting question is why should evolution in all its forms arise?

  • Joseph Colasuonno Jr

    Life has to use all the time, i never heard of animals or plants sending tv or radio waves out .We have too send some energy(must b to evolve.when a species evolves it happens all around the world at once.

    • Mark Diehl

      I think you’re misunderstanding what evolution is and how it works. Mutations happen, if this mutation gives a particular organism an edge then it will come to dominate it’s environment. Evolution is not a simultaneous global event. It’s a slow march over long periods of time where the species that can better adapt to its environment will dominate while their less evolved cousins die out. Genes are only passed from parents to offspring. If my children inherit a gene that gives them an edge in today’s environment it won’t suddenly trigger everyone else’s children to develop that gene as well. In other words, inheritance, not dark energy, determines the evolutionary course of a given organism.

      • Joseph Colasuonno Jr

        Sorry for the delay thanks mark for poinrting that out!my friend patrick mislead me with bad infornation.but i strogly believewe use dark energy on a regular basis communicating with each other thru other means than the five senses(telepathy)this will help us survive better.Heres a ex.of how we use it.the pyramids were built in egypt and around the same time being built in the americas.

    • Emkay

      Keep smokin’ man…….

  • Tamara Landrum

    Please, send this article to a ‘Scientist’ who does not believe in “Dark Matter or Dark Energy, as I believe! I use ‘Quantum Theory’ to validate my belief, he tries to use the old physic theory of Einstein, Hawkins, etc. I use the Theories of Dr. William Glasser, of Glasser Institute in Ca. along with any other Quantum Philosophers, like myself! His e-mail is: I can be reached at; Gene n Landrum PhQ Quantum Theory
    Founder of Quantum Cafe’ Think Tank of Coos County, Oregon 97420

    • Emkay

      Hey Tamara, heres one you can work on…The big bang theory seems pretty much validated, but a lot of people would like to know..
      Exactly what blew up at the Big Bang?

  • Guest

    Dark Energy (Anti-Gravity) is a consequence of the need of our Space-Time (Spherical-Surface) to expand (at the speed of light in Time-Space) away from the Big-Bang (the Center of the beginning of our Universe in Time-Space) in order to exist at all. Dark Matter (Gravity) is a consequence of misunderstanding the true shape of the Space-Time Vortexes (Gravity-Wells that are nearly Conical Space-Time Surfaces) that truly large masses (Black-Holes, Galaxies and Galaxy-Clusters) create. — James P. Davis

    • Emkay

      Of Course !…you need to copy Stephen Hawking with your notes on these facts…save him a lot of work..

  • Steve Matsukawa

    I feel that since the scale of the smallest small and the biggest big is infinitesimal, we human beings are at the smaller end of the smallest small. What we then observe are things that dwell in the biggest big end of things, and we cannot fathom such large scale of architectures.

    We human beings need to scale up our observational instruments as well as scale them down in order to increase the observable universe we can ‘see’.

  • Remigiusz Zarosinski

    The dark matter & energy are the same we can see. Why we can not see them ? Simple! they do not move or move very slow thrugh Time-Space so they do not generate electro-magnetic waves we can detect with tools we have today. Looking for them on Earth is simply stupid.

  • m12345

    Perhaps all the light in a galaxy affects it, perhaps all those virtual particles have mass, and when they flit out of existence they go back to being the dark energy.

  • coreyspowell

    [author] Thank you for sharing so many far-ranging thoughts. Let me quickly address two running questions here.

    * Is dark matter related to consciousness? In the literal sense, almost certainly not. One of the essential attributes of dark matter (as it is currently understood) is that it has very little interaction with ordinary, baryonic matter. It interacts only via the weak nuclear force, the same way that neutrinos interact with ordinary matter. If you are looking for something to influence the processes in your brain, dark matter is one of the least likely things to do it simply because it has so little influence on your atoms.

    The mysterious thing about consciousness is that it is immaterial. It seems to be some kind of emergent process from the physical interactions in the brain, and it is doubly hard to understand because we are trying to make sense of an experience–not the observable phenomenon of how chemicals and electrical charges move through our neurons. It’s a fascinating area of research, but just because we cannot see consciousness and we cannot see dark matter does not make them the same thing. But to the extent that scientists use “dark” to connote “unknown”–in that sense (and that sense only) both consciousness and the cosmos are full of darkness.

    * Could dark matter be electromagnetic radiation or ordinary particles moving in unfamiliar ways? This one is simpler. The answer is a clean “no.” If it were any form of radiation we could detect it. We can also observe (via gravitational lensing) how dark matter clumps, and it is not consistent with radiation. There is also very strong evidence that dark matter is not a hidden form of ordinary matter.

    The equations of the big bang predict very accurately, and very precisely, the composition of the universe, and they set strong limits on the amount of ordinary matter. Observations of the cosmic microwave background also allow very precise measurements of the abundance of ordinary matter and dark matter. Finally, observations of mass and hot gas in galaxy clusters like the Bullet Cluster show that ordinary matter and dark matter follow different distributions, which is possible only if they interact in fundamentally different ways.

    Put it all together and the evidence is very strong that dark matter is something completely different from the things we know. What it is though–that’s the big unknown.

  • OWilson

    We are just ants who see a blurry form in the distance. What is it? A tree, an elephant, a house or the Himalayas.

    It should be fun to speculate on the great unknowable, but the problem is scientists have become rather arrogant. They like to put everything in a little box, just like in this article. Mathematical equations by themselves do not explain the underlying phenomena we can observe, and contain “fudge factors.

    From cosmological “constants”, to artificial speed limits, to big bangs with inflation, then deflation, to strings, “dark” this or that. All these postulates, and invocations, are necessary to make imperfect understanding all add up nicely.
    Truth is it’s far better to wonder at the mystery of it all, than to arrogantly try to flog ever more complicated “theories”.
    Because the fundamental questions are not even close to being answered, and may never be.

  • Ken Albertsen

    well written article. It’s a stretch – to believe those two dark things predominate in the universe, yet we can’t, even with VL colliders, detect either of them. I’ll defer to scientists, and accept they’re on to something significant. I agree with the poster who said we’re somewhat like ants looking at a large smudge and not knowing whether it’s a mountain or an avo seed – except we can’t yet fathom what a mountain is.

    • Scott Bergquist

      It looks as if it is “detectable”, by virtue of the gravity dark matter and dark energy exerts. However, it may be so diffuse as to require some sort of experiment as large as planet Earth (which, in the cosmos, is still an extremely small body floating in space.

  • Jennifer Davis

    I can’t understand why we are inventing dark matter, dark energy and parallel universes to patch up our clearly incorrect theory of gravity. Correct solutions are elegant. Go back to basics and rework the theory of gravity!

    • coreyspowell

      [author] The Standard Model of physics describes 61 (!) different fundamental particles, and is known to be an incomplete description of reality. I therefore take the opposite view: I find it much simpler and more elegant to consider that there may be a few more particles not yet discovered than that our fundamental understanding of gravity needs to be rewritten.

      Also note that a number of researchers have in fact attempted modified theories of gravity to explain away dark matter (and perhaps dark energy as well). The problem is that so far none of these theories manage to explain all the observations and to fit in with what we already know about the behavior of gravity.

  • Mark Schneider

    As atheists, you have decided to reject that which can’t be empirically verified, and yet the vast majority of reality is completely unverifiable. It seems as though empiricism is something of a fallacy. The universe just isn’t very observable, is it.

  • Franco J. Torres

    Wow! This article is fascinating.

  • Michael

    just found this blog. hhhmmmm… seems to me that as “human being’s” we should not be concerned with the question of how we came into “being”, but rather the idea of how we can understand the relationship of of our individual self awareness within the scope of a cosmic awareness of “self propagation”. While it is true that there are infinite dimensions of time and space suggested by string theories, there is the question of how these realities came into being. One can identify a path to self realization to conscious awareness of the beginning of time and space, but to what end? If the universe is infinite and timeless, and we are “created in the image and likeness of (?????), then should not not our resources be toward a journey towards the originating source of all that came into existence? Which starts with the exploration of self and our relationships with other souls on this journey we call life.

  • Bla bla bla

    “Five-sixths of the universe is missing.”

    I’d first look to the 1%-ers, who greedily horde everything they can get their hands on.

  • Charu K

    Wild thought, May be dark matter, dark energy, black hole are dimensions of hyper time, creating hypergeometry of visible space and matter which is continuously evolving into three visible space dimensions containing visible space and matter. We may forget single big bang bubble universe in place of multiple bubbles containing galaxy clusters in hypergeometry of time. It may be better to call dark and black simply as abstract. The abstract which will come to become visible, the abstract which is past and future of the present visible matter and space. Speed of light may be measure of distance not a measure of time, perhaps every location in the universe has local time, universe time being the hyper time only.

  • Jacob miller

    I was just curious if anybody else had had the thought that maybe dark matter and/Or dark energy are shadows. I personally think it makes sense, because shadows don’t interact with any part of the electromagnetic spectrum. I would like to hear free back on this theory.

  • Carmela Beatriz Leyva-Grueter

    Have you heard of shadow people? I had an encounter with a shadow person once as crazy as that may sound to the scientific community but if there is a shadow universe and dark energy why not shadow people. The one that I encountered only had a partial body which was the upper half.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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