Artwork by Terry Fan.
Something, where we thought there was nothing.
In the simplest of terms, that’s dark matter. Easy.
From Doctor Who to BBC three documentaries, dark matter has escaped the pockets of the scientific white coats and clambered into our cultural mindset.
But the thing is, try as they might, no one really knows what it is. And not many have been able to give an explanation simple enough, well for me, to really understand. Not even Professor Brian Cox. Sigh.
In this writing game, we tend to spend a great deal of time churning over the impenetrable, attempting to draw out the messages that count in a way that really connects.
So with a Feed to delve into the dark stuff, I tasked myself with translating the science, attempting to make it all a bit more digestible.
Step aside Brian, here’s my attempt to shed light on dark matter…
Look down at your shoes. Take them off. And your socks, go on.
Wiggle your toes. Spread them as wide as you can. Look at the spaces inbetween. Unless they’re webbed (unfortunate), then there are spaces right?
Spaces. You know, the places were there’s nothing. Where there is no matter, apart from what we know should be there; nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and a little bit of argon.
What if I told you there was something else lurking in there too. And not just errant morsels of sock fluff. Yes that’s right. Dark matter between your toes. And not just between your toes, but absolutely everywhere.
It’s all around us. It’s real. But no one actually knows what ‘it’ is.
What they do know however is that it’s like nothing they’ve ever come across before. In fact, scientists have worked out that dark matter’s very existence is crucial to understanding the very nature of our universe.
But trying to learn about something you can neither see, nor capture is quite a tricky business. It doesn’t emit light, and it doesn’t absorb light, which makes it invisible to the eye. Its particles pass through everything they encounter, like an invisible man striding seamlessly through walls.
What’s most exciting though, is that each particle is so massive in weight, together they have the ability to influence galaxies.
It all started with a fuzzy patch in the sky. Astronomer Edward Hubble had an inkling that there was far more going on up in this area of space than the haze of the Milky Way.
When he measured this fuzzy cluster, something didn’t quite add up. The motions within it, the way the stars moved in comparison to how planets spin in galaxies, was far too fast. He realised that something else must have been affecting their motions.
The cluster could not be stable, all huddled together, unless there was something else keeping it all together. Without this invisible force, the galaxy would spin out of control and be lost forever, like George Clooney in Gravity.
Sadly for Hubble, no one took him seriously. Mainly because history paints him as an angry, rude little man. But where his personality failed, his science succeeded, and continues to be developed by leading scientists today.
Some galaxies are now known to be spinning up to nine times too fast, and dark matter is the only possible explanation. Halos of invisible matter surround each galaxy holding it together and keeping it whole. It’s even estimated there are ten times more dark matter than the illuminated stuff.
But if there’s so much of it, where’s it hiding?
We already know that dark matter is elusive when it comes to reflecting light. But when it comes to light passing through it, it’s a different story altogether. When light passes through it, it becomes distorted by dark matter’s particles . And that’s how we know it’s there.
This might seem like a reasonably small revelation, but knowing that there’s definitely something in the nothingness of infinity (even if we’re not too sure what it is) and knowing that there’s something holding us all together, is bound to have a colossal impact on how we think about space, the black starry part and the stuff around us.
Especially when it’s happening right between toes.