New Theory of Gravity Might Explain Dark Matter

A new theory of gravity might explain the curious motions of stars in galaxies. Emergent gravity, as the new theory is called, predicts the exact same deviation of motions that is usually explained by invoking dark matter. Prof. Erik Verlinde, renowned expert in string theory at the University of Amsterdam and the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics, published a new research paper today in which he expands his groundbreaking views on the nature of gravity.


In 2010, Erik Verlinde surprised the world with a completely new theory of gravity. According to Verlinde, gravity is not a fundamental force of nature, but an emergent phenomenon. In the same way that temperature arises from the movement of microscopic particles, gravity emerges from the changes of fundamental bits of information, stored in the very structure of spacetime.

Newton’s law from information

In his 2010 article (On the origin of gravity and the laws of Newton), Verlinde showed how Newton’s famous second law, which describes how apples fall from trees and satellites stay in orbit, can be derived from these underlying microscopic building blocks. Extending his previous work and work done by others, Verlinde now shows how to understand the curious behaviour of stars in galaxies without adding the puzzling dark matter.

The outer regions of galaxies, like our own Milky Way, rotate much faster around the centre than can be accounted for by the quantity of ordinary matter like stars, planets and interstellar gasses. Something else has to produce the required amount of gravitational force, so physicists proposed the existence of dark matter. Dark matter seems to dominate our universe, comprising more than 80 percent of all matter. Hitherto, the alleged dark matter particles have never been observed, despite many efforts to detect them.

No need for dark matter

According to Erik Verlinde, there is no need to add a mysterious dark matter particle to the theory. In a new paper, which appeared today on the ArXiv preprint server, Verlinde shows how his theory of gravity accurately predicts the velocities by which the stars rotate around the center of the Milky Way, as well as the motion of stars inside other galaxies.

“We have evidence that this new view of gravity actually agrees with the observations, ” says Verlinde. “At large scales, it seems, gravity just doesn’t behave the way Einstein’s theory predicts.”

At first glance, Verlinde’s theory presents features similar to modified theories of gravity like MOND (modified Newtonian Dynamics, Mordehai Milgrom (1983)). However, where MOND tunes the theory to match the observations, Verlinde’s theory starts from first principles. “A totally different starting point,” according to Verlinde.

Adapting the holographic principle

One of the ingredients in Verlinde’s theory is an adaptation of the holographic principle, introduced by his tutor Gerard ‘t Hooft (Nobel Prize 1999, Utrecht University) and Leonard Susskind (Stanford University). According to the holographic principle, all the information in the entire universe can be described on a giant imaginary sphere around it. Verlinde now shows that this idea is not quite correct – part of the information in our universe is contained in space itself.

This extra information is required to describe that other dark component of the universe: Dark energy, which is believed to be responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe. Investigating the effects of this additional information on ordinary matter, Verlinde comes to a stunning conclusion. Whereas ordinary gravity can be encoded using the information on the imaginary sphere around the universe, as he showed in his 2010 work, the result of the additional information in the bulk of space is a force that nicely matches that attributed to dark matter.

On the brink of a scientific revolution

Gravity is in dire need of new approaches like the one by Verlinde, since it doesn’t combine well with quantum physics. Both theories, crown jewels of 20th century physics, cannot be true at the same time. The problems arise in extreme conditions: near black holes, or during the Big Bang. Verlinde says, “Many theoretical physicists like me are working on a revision of the theory, and some major advancements have been made. We might be standing on the brink of a new scientific revolution that will radically change our views on the very nature of space, time and gravity.”

Detour Via Gravitational Lens Makes Distant Galaxy Visible

Never before have astrophysicists measured light of such high energy from a celestial object so far away. Around 7 billion years ago, a huge explosion occurred at the black hole in the center of a galaxy. This was followed by a burst of high-intensity gamma rays. A number of telescopes, MAGIC included, have succeeded in capturing this light. An added bonus: it was thus possible to reconfirm Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, as the light rays encountered a less distant galaxy en route to Earth — and were deflected by this so-called gravitational lens.


The object QSO B0218+357 is a blazar, a specific type of black hole. Researchers now assume that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of every galaxy. Black holes, into which matter is currently plunging are called active black holes. They emit extremely bright jets. If these bursts point towards Earth, the term blazar is used.

Full moon prevents the first MAGIC observation

The event now described in “Astronomy & Astrophysics” took place 7 billion years ago, when the universe was not even half its present age. “The blazar was discovered initially on 14 July 2014 by the Large Area Telescope (LAT) of the Fermi satellite,” explains Razmik Mirzoyan, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Physics and spokesperson for the MAGIC collaboration. “The gamma ray telescopes on Earth immediately fixed their sights on the blazer in order to learn more about this object.”

One of these telescopes was MAGIC, on the Canary Island of La Palma, specialized in high-energy gamma rays. It can capture photons — light particles — whose energy is 100 billion times higher than the photons emitted by our Sun and a thousand times higher than those measured by Fermi-LAT. The MAGIC scientists were initially out of luck, however: A full moon meant the telescope was not able to operate during the time in question.

Gravitational lens deflects ultra-high-energy photons

Eleven days later, MAGIC got a second chance, as the gamma rays emitted by QSO B0218+357 did not take the direct route to Earth: One billion years after setting off on their journey, they reached the galaxy B0218+357G. This is where Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity came into play.

This states that a large mass in the universe, a galaxy, for example, deflects light of an object behind it. In addition, the light is focused as if by a gigantic optical lens — to a distant observer, the object appears to be much brighter, but also distorted. The light beams also need different lengths of time to pass through the lens, depending on the angle of observation.

This gravitational lens was the reason that MAGIC was able, after all, to measure QSO B0218+357 — and thus the most distant object in the high-energy gamma ray spectrum. “We knew from observations undertaken by the Fermi space telescope and radio telescopes in 2012 that the photons that took the longer route would arrive 11 days later,” says Julian Sitarek (University of ?ódz, Poland), who led this study. “This was the first time we were able to observe that high-energy photons were deflected by a gravitational lens.”

Doubling the size of the gamma-ray universe

The fact that gamma rays of such high energy from a distant celestial body reach Earth’s atmosphere is anything but obvious. “Many gamma rays are lost when they interact with photons which originate from galaxies or stars and have a lower energy,” says Mirzoyan. “With the MAGIC observation, the part of the universe that we can observe via gamma rays has doubled.”

The fact that the light arrived on Earth at the time calculated could rattle a few theories on the structure of the vacuum — further investigations, however, are required to confirm this. “The observation currently points to new possibilities for high-energy gamma ray observatories — and provides a pointer for the next generation of telescopes in the CTA project,” says Mirzoyan, summing up the situation.

Tsunami Of Stars And Gas Produces Dazzling Eye-Shaped Feature In Galaxy

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered a tsunami of stars and gas that is crashing midway through the disk of a spiral galaxy known as IC 2163. This colossal wave of material — which was triggered when IC 2163 recently sideswiped another spiral galaxy dubbed NGC 2207 — produced dazzling arcs of intense star formation that resemble a pair of eyelids.


“Although galaxy collisions of this type are not uncommon, only a few galaxies with eye-like, or ocular, structures are known to exist,” said Michele Kaufman, an astronomer formerly with The Ohio State University in Columbus and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Kaufman and her colleagues note that the paucity of similar features in the observable universe is likely due to their ephemeral nature. “Galactic eyelids last only a few tens of millions of years, which is incredibly brief in the lifespan of a galaxy. Finding one in such a newly formed state gives us an exceptional opportunity to study what happens when one galaxy grazes another,” said Kaufman.

The interacting pair of galaxies resides approximately 114 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Canis Major. These galaxies brushed past each other — scraping the edges of their outer spiral arms — in what is likely the first encounter of an eventual merger.

Using ALMA’s remarkable sensitivity and resolution, the astronomers made the most detailed measurements ever of the motion of carbon monoxide gas in the galaxy’s narrow eyelid features. Carbon monoxide is a tracer of molecular gas, which is the fuel for star formation.

The data reveal that the gas in the outer portion of IC 2163’s eyelids is racing inward at speeds in excess of 100 kilometers a second. This gas, however, quickly decelerates and its motion becomes more chaotic, eventually changing trajectory and aligning itself with the rotation of the galaxy rather than continuing its pell-mell rush toward the center.

“What we observe in this galaxy is very much like a massive ocean wave barreling toward shore until it interacts with the shallows, causing it to lose momentum and dump all of its water and sand on the beach,” said Bruce Elmegreen, a scientist with IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, and co-author on the paper.

“Not only do we find a rapid deceleration of the gas as it moves from the outer to the inner edge of the eyelids, but we also measure that the more rapidly it decelerates, the denser the molecular gas becomes,” said Kaufman. “This direct measurement of compression shows how the encounter between the two galaxies drives gas to pile up, spawn new star clusters and form these dazzling eyelid features.”

Computer models predict that such eyelid-like features could evolve if galaxies interacted in a very specific manner. “This evidence for a strong shock in the eyelids is terrific. It’s all very well to have a theory and simulations suggesting it should be true, but real observational evidence is great,” said Curtis Struck, a professor of astrophysics at Iowa State University in Ames and co-author on the paper.

“ALMA showed us that the velocities of the molecular gas in the eyelids are on the right track with the predictions we get from computer models,” said Kaufman. “This critical test of encounter simulations was not possible before.”

Astronomers believe that such collisions between galaxies were common in the early universe when galaxies were closer together. At that time, however, galactic disks were generally clumpy and irregular, so other processes likely overwhelmed the formation of similar eyelid features.

The authors continue to study this galaxy pair and currently are comparing the properties (e.g., locations, ages, and masses) of the star clusters previously observed with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope with the properties of the molecular clouds observed with ALMA. They hope to better understand the differences between molecular clouds and star clusters in the eyelids and those elsewhere in the galaxy pair.

Pillars Of Cosmic Destruction: Colorful Carina Nebula Blasted By Brilliant Nearby Stars

Spectacular new observations of vast pillar-like structures within the Carina Nebula have been made using the M– USE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The different pillars analysed by an international team seem to be pillars of destruction — in contrast to the name of the iconic Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, which are of similar nature.The spires and pillars in the new images of the Carina Nebula are vast clouds of dust and gas within a hub of star formation about 7500 light-years away. The pillars in the nebula were observed by a team led by Anna McLeod, a PhD student at ESO, using the M– USE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.


The great power of M– USE is that it creates thousands of images of the nebula at the same time, each at a different wavelength of light. This allows astronomers to map out the chemical and physical properties of the material at different points in the nebula.

Images of similar structures, the famous Pillars of Creation* in the Eagle Nebula and formations in NGC 3603, were combined with the ones displayed here. In total ten pillars have been observed, and in so doing a clear link was observed between the radiation emitted by nearby massive stars and the features of the pillars themselves.

In an ironic twist, one of the first consequences of the formation of a massive star is that it starts to destroy the cloud from which it was born. The idea that massive stars will have a considerable effect on their surroundings is not new: such stars are known to blast out vast quantities of powerful, ionising radiation — emission with enough energy to strip atoms of their orbiting electrons. However, it is very difficult to obtain observational evidence of the interplay between such stars and their surroundings.

The team analysed the effect of this energetic radiation on the pillars: a process known as photoevaporation, when gas is ionised and then disperses away. By observing the results of photoevaporation — which included the loss of mass from the pillars — they were able to deduce the culprits. There was a clear correlation between the amount of ionising radiation being emitted by nearby stars, and the dissipation of the pillars.

This might seem like a cosmic calamity, with massive stars turning on their own creators. However the complexities of the feedback mechanisms between the stars and the pillars are poorly understood. These pillars might look dense, but the clouds of dust and gas which make up nebulae are actually very diffuse. It is possible that the radiation and stellar winds from massive stars actually help create denser spots within the pillars, which can then form stars.

These breathtaking celestial structures have more to tell us, and M– USE is an ideal instrument to probe them with.

Unusual Martian Region Leaves Clues To Planet’s Past

Researcher Don Hood from LSU and colleagues from collaborating universities studied an unusual region on Mars — an area with high elevation called Thaumasia Planum. They analyzed the geography and mineralogy of this area they termed Greater Thaumasia, which is about the size of North America. They also studied the chemistry of this area based on Gamma Ray Spectrometer data collected by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which was launched in 2001. What they found was the mountain ridge that outlines Greater Thaumasia was most likely created by a chain of volcanoes. The results were published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.


“The chemical changes we see moving northwestward through the region is consistent with the mantle evolving on Mars. Our research supports that this whole area was built as a volcanic construct,” said Don Hood, LSU Department of Geology and Geophysics doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper.

The chemical composition changes throughout the region. Silica and H20 increase and potassium decreases from southeast to northwest.

“The chemical composition shifting is the key progression that tells us that this environment was most likely shaped by a series of volcanic events that continually erupted from a changing mantle composition,” Hood said.

Hood and colleagues from Stony Brook University, University of Tokyo and Lehigh University ruled out another hypothesis that the abundance of H20 and potassium was caused by water interacting in rock.

“We looked for evidence of aqueous alteration through other geochemical means and didn’t find it,” he said.

The geography of the region has many shield volcanoes that are similar to the ones found in Hawaii. However from geochemical analyses, the researchers found that the sulfur that is present was most likely deposited as a volcanic ash. Volcanic ash from various areas could be evidence of explosive volcanism on Mars, which would be an important clue for piecing together the history of Mars. It is significant because explosive eruptions emit a lot of gas that can stay in the atmosphere and can cause global cooling and warming events.

“Whether there was explosive volcanism on Mars and how much of it there was is an important question in terms of finding out what the past climate was like,” Hood said.

Supercomputer Comes Up With A Profile Of Dark Matter

In the search for the mysterious dark matter, physicists have used elaborate computer calculations to come up with an outline of the particles of this unknown form of matter. To do this, the scientists extended the successful Standard Model of particle physics which allowed them, among other things, to predict the mass of so-called axions, promising candidates for dark matter. The German-Hungarian team of researchers led by Professor Zoltán Fodor of the University of Wuppertal, Eötvös University in Budapest and Forschungszentrum Jülich carried out its calculations on Jülich’s supercomputer JUQUEEN (BlueGene/Q) and presents its results in the journal Nature.


“Dark matter is an invisible form of matter which until now has only revealed itself through its gravitational effects. What it consists of remains a complete mystery,” explains co-author Dr Andreas Ringwald, who is based at DESY and who proposed the current research. Evidence for the existence of this form of matter comes, among other things, from the astrophysical observation of galaxies, which rotate far too rapidly to be held together only by the gravitational pull of the visible matter. High-precision measurements using the European satellite “Planck” show that almost 85 percent of the entire mass of the universe consists of dark matter. All the stars, planets, nebulae and other objects in space that are made of conventional matter account for no more than 15 percent of the mass of the universe.

“The adjective ‘dark’ does not simply mean that it does not emit visible light,” says Ringwald. “It does not appear to give off any other wavelengths either — its interaction with photons must be very weak indeed.” For decades, physicists have been searching for particles of this new type of matter. What is clear is that these particles must lie beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, and while that model is extremely successful, it currently only describes the conventional 15 percent of all matter in the cosmos. From theoretically possible extensions to the Standard Model physicists not only expect a deeper understanding of the universe, but also concrete clues in what energy range it is particularly worthwhile looking for dark-matter candidates.

The unknown form of matter can either consist of comparatively few, but very heavy particles, or of a large number of light ones. The direct searches for heavy dark-matter candidates using large detectors in underground laboratories and the indirect search for them using large particle accelerators are still going on, but have not turned up any dark matter particles so far. A range of physical considerations make extremely light particles, dubbed axions, very promising candidates. Using clever experimental setups, it might even be possible to detect direct evidence of them. “However, to find this kind of evidence it would be extremely helpful to know what kind of mass we are looking for,” emphasises theoretical physicist Ringwald. “Otherwise the search could take decades, because one would have to scan far too large a range.”

The existence of axions is predicted by an extension to quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the quantum theory that governs the strong interaction, responsible for the nuclear force. The strong interaction is one of the four fundamental forces of nature alongside gravitation, electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for radioactivity. “Theoretical considerations indicate that there are so-called topological quantum fluctuations in quantum chromodynamics, which ought to result in an observable violation of time reversal symmetry,” explains Ringwald. This means that certain processes should differ depending on whether they are running forwards or backwards. However, no experiment has so far managed to demonstrate this effect.

The extension to quantum chromodynamics (QCD) restores the invariance of time reversals, but at the same time it predicts the existence of a very weakly interacting particle, the axion, whose properties, in particular its mass, depend on the strength of the topological quantum fluctuations. However, it takes modern supercomputers like Jülich’s JUQUEEN to calculate the latter in the temperature range that is relevant in predicting the relative contribution of axions to the matter making up the universe. “On top of this, we had to develop new methods of analysis in order to achieve the required temperature range,” notes Fodor who led the research.

The results show, among other things, that if axions do make up the bulk of dark matter, they should have a mass of 50 to 1500 micro-electronvolts, expressed in the customary units of particle physics, and thus be up to ten billion times lighter than electrons. This would require every cubic centimetre of the universe to contain on average ten million such ultra-lightweight particles. Dark matter is not spread out evenly in the universe, however, but forms clumps and branches of a weblike network. Because of this, our local region of the Milky Way should contain about one trillion axions per cubic centimetre.

Thanks to the Jülich supercomputer, the calculations now provide physicists with a concrete range in which their search for axions is likely to be most promising. “The results we are presenting will probably lead to a race to discover these particles,” says Fodor. Their discovery would not only solve the problem of dark matter in the universe, but at the same time answer the question why the strong interaction is so surprisingly symmetrical with respect to time reversal. The scientists expect that it will be possible within the next few years to either confirm or rule out the existence of axions experimentally.

The Institute for Nuclear Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Debrecen, the Lendület Lattice Gauge Theory Research Group at the Eötvös University, the University of Zaragoza in Spain, and the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich were also involved in the research.

New Model Explains The Moon’s Weird Orbit

The moon, Earth’s closest neighbor, is among the strangest planetary bodies in the solar system. Its orbit lies unusually far away from Earth, with a surprisingly large orbital tilt. Planetary scientists have struggled to piece together a scenario that accounts for these and other related characteristics of the Earth-moon system.


A new research paper, based on numerical models of the moon’s explosive formation and the evolution of the Earth-moon system, comes closer to tying up all the loose ends than any other previous explanation. The work, published in the October 31, 2016 Advance Online edition of the journal Nature, suggests that the impact that formed the moon also caused calamitous changes to Earth’s rotation and the tilt of its spin axis.

The research suggests that the impact sent Earth spinning much faster, and at a much steeper tilt, than it does today. In the several billion years since that impact, complex interactions between Earth, the moon and sun have smoothed out many of these changes, resulting in the Earth-moon system that we see today. In this scenario, the remaining anomalies in the moon’s orbit are relics of the Earth-moon system’s explosive past.

“Evidence suggests a giant impact blasted off a huge amount of material that formed the moon,” said Douglas Hamilton, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the Nature paper. “This material would have formed a ring of debris first, then the ring would have aggregated to form the moon. But this scenario does not quite work if Earth’s spin axis was tilted at the 23.5 degree angle we see today.”

Collisional physics calls for this ring of debris — and thus the moon’s orbit immediately after formation — to lie in Earth’s equatorial plane. As tidal interactions between Earth and the moon drove the moon further away from Earth, the moon should have shifted from Earth’s equatorial plane to the “ecliptic” plane, which corresponds to Earth’s orbit around the sun.

But today, instead of being in line with the ecliptic plane, the moon’s orbit is tilted five degrees away from it.

“This large tilt is very unusual. Until now, there hasn’t been a good explanation,” Hamilton said. ” But we can understand it if Earth had a more dramatic early history than we previously suspected.”

Hamilton, with lead author Matija Cuk of the SETI institute and their colleagues Simon Lock of Harvard University and Sarah Stewart of the University of California, Davis, tried many different scenarios. But the most successful ones involved a moon-forming impact that sent Earth spinning extremely fast — as much as twice the rate predicted by other models. The impact also knocked Earth’s tilt way off, to somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees.

“We already suspected that Earth must have spun especially fast after the impact” Cuk said. “An early high tilt for Earth enables our planet to lose that excess spin more readily.”

The model also suggests that the newly-formed moon started off very close to Earth, but then drifted away — to nearly 15 times its initial distance. As it did so, the sun began to exert a more powerful influence over the moon’s orbit.

According to the researchers, both factors — a highly tilted, fast spinning Earth and an outwardly-migrating moon — contributed to establishing the moon’s current weird orbit. The newborn moon’s orbit most likely tracked Earth’s equator, tilted at a steep 60-80 degree angle that matched Earth’s tilt.

A key finding of the new research is that, if Earth was indeed tilted by more than 60 degrees after the moon formed, the moon could not transition smoothly from Earth’s equatorial plane to the ecliptic plane. Instead, the transition was abrupt and left the moon with a large tilt relative to the ecliptic — much larger than is observed today.

“As the moon moved outward, Earth’s steep tilt made for a more chaotic transition as the sun became a bigger influence,” Cuk said. “Subsequently, and over billions of years, the moon’s tilt slowly decayed down to the five degrees we see today. So today’s five degree tilt is a relic and a signature of a much steeper tilt in the past.”

Hamilton acknowledges that the model doesn’t answer all the remaining questions about the moon’s orbit. But the model’s strength, he says, is that it offers a framework for answering new questions in the future.

“There are many potential paths from the moon’s formation to the Earth-moon system we see today. We’ve identified a few of them, but there are sure to be other possibilities,” Hamilton said. “What we have now is a model that is more probable and works more cleanly than previous attempts. We think this is a significant improvement that gets us closer to what actually happened.”