Physicists and astronomers have determined that most of the material in the universe is “dark matter”—whose existence we infer from its gravitational effects but not through electromagnetic influences such as we find with ordinary, familiar matter. One of the simplest concepts in physics, dark matter can nonetheless be mystifying because of our human perspective. Each of us has five senses, all of which originate in electromagnetic interactions. Vision, for example, is based on our sensitivity to light: electromagnetic waves that lie within a specific range of frequencies. We can see the matter with which we are familiar because the atoms that make it up emit or absorb light. The electric charges carried by the electrons and protons in atoms are the reason we can see.
Matter is not necessarily composed of atoms, however. Most of it can be made of something entirely distinct. Matter is any material that interacts with gravity as normal matter does—becoming clumped into galaxies and galaxy clusters, for example.
There is no reason that matter must always consist of charged particles. But matter that has no electromagnetic interactions will be invisible to our eyes. So-called dark matter carries no (or as yet undetectably little) electromagnetic charge. No one has seen it directly with his or her eyes or even with sensitive optical instruments. Yet we believe it is out there because of its manifold gravitational influences. These include dark matter's impact on the stars in our galaxy (which revolve at speeds too great for ordinary matter's gravitational force to rein in) and the motions of galaxies in galaxy clusters (again, too fast to be accounted for only by matter that we see); its imprint on the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the time of the big bang; its influence on the trajectories of visible matter from supernova expansions; the bending of light known as gravitational lensing; and the observation that the visible and invisible matter gets separated in merged galaxy clusters.
Perhaps the most significant sign of the existence of dark matter, however, is our very existence. Despite its invisibility, dark matter has been critical to the evolution of our universe and to the emergence of stars, planets and even life. That is because dark matter carries five times the mass of ordinary matter and, furthermore, does not directly interact with light. Both these properties were critical to the creation of structures such as galaxies—within the (relatively short) time span we know to be a typical galaxy lifetime—and, in particular, to the formation of a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. Without dark matter, radiation would have prevented clumping of the galactic structure for too long, in essence wiping it out and keeping the universe smooth and homogeneous. The galaxy essential to our solar system and our life was formed in the time since the big bang only because of the existence of dark matter.
Some people, on first hearing about dark matter, feel dismayed. How can something we do not see exist? At least since the Copernican revolution, humans should be prepared to admit their noncentrality to the makeup of the universe. Yet each time people learn about it in a new context, many get confused or surprised. There is no reason that the matter we see should be the only type of matter there is. The existence of dark matter might be expected and is compatible with everything we know.
Perhaps some confusion lies in the name. Dark matter should really be called transparent matter because, as with all transparent things, light just passes through it. Nevertheless, its nature is far from transparent. Physicists and astronomers would like to understand, at a more fundamental level, what exactly dark matter is. Is it made up of a new type of fundamental particle, or does it consist of some invisible, compact object, such as a black hole? If it is a particle, does it have any (albeit very weak) interaction with familiar matter, aside from gravity? Does that particle have any interactions with itself that would be invisible to our senses? Is there more than one type of such a particle? Do any of these particles have interactions of any sort?
My theoretical colleagues and I have thought about a number of interesting possibilities. Ultimately, however, we will learn about the true nature of dark matter only with the help of further observations to guide us. Those observations might consist of more detailed measurements of dark matter's gravitational influence. Or—if we are very lucky and dark matter does have some tiny, nongravitational interaction with ordinary matter we have so far failed to observe—big underground detectors, satellites in space or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva might in the future detect dark matter particles. Even without such interactions with ordinary matter, dark matter's self-interactions might have observable consequences. For example, the internal structure of galaxies at small scales will be different if dark matter's interactions with itself rearrange matter at galactic centers. Compact or other structures akin to the Milky Way, such as the bright gas clouds and stars we see when we look at the night sky, could indicate one or more distinct species of dark matter particles that interact with one another. Or hypothesized particles called axions that interact with magnetic fields might be detected in laboratories or in space.
For a theorist, an observer or an experimentalist, dark matter is a promising target for research. We know it exists, but we do not yet know what it is at a fundamental level. The reason we do not know might be obvious by now: it is just not interacting enough to tell us, at least so far. As humans, we can only do so much if ordinary matter is essentially oblivious to anything but dark matter's very existence. But if dark matter has some more interesting properties, researchers are poised to find them—and, in the process, to help us more completely address this wonderful mystery.
This article is part of a special report, “The Biggest Questions in Science,” sponsored by The Kavli Prize. It was produced independently by Scientific American and Nature editors, who have sole responsibility for all the editorial content.