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See Inside November 2010

Dark Worlds: A Journey to a Universe of Unseen Matter

A shadow cosmos, woven silently into our own, may have its own rich inner life



Courtesy of Volker Springel Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics and Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies

On September 23, 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle, director of the Berlin Observatory, received a letter that would change the course of astronomical history. It came from a Frenchman, Urbain Le Verrier, who had been studying the motion of Uranus and concluded that its path could not be explained by the known gravitational forces acting on it. Le Verrier suggested the existence of a hitherto unobserved object whose gravitational pull was perturbing Uranus’s orbit in precisely the way required to account for the anomalous observations. Following Le Verrier’s directions, Galle went to his telescope that night and discovered the planet Neptune.

A similar drama—in which astronomers observe anomalous cosmic motions, deduce the presence of new matter and go out to hunt for it—is playing out again today in modern cosmology. In the role of Uranus, we see stars and galaxies moving in ways they should not; in the role of Neptune, we deduce the existence of hitherto unobserved substances, provisionally called dark matter and dark energy. From the types of anomalies we see, we can glean a few basic facts about them. Dark matter seems to be a sea of invisible particles that fills space unevenly; dark energy is spread out uniformly and acts as if it is woven into the fabric of space itself. Scientists have yet to repeat Galle’s accomplishment of pointing an instrument at the sky and glimpsing the unseen players definitively, but tantalizing inklings, such as blips in particle detectors, continue to accumulate.

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