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What is the Universe Made Of?


Protons, Neutrons and Electrons: The Stuff of Life

You, this computer, the air we breathe, and the distant stars are all made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons are bound together into nuclei and atoms are nuclei surrounded by a full complement of electrons. Hydrogen is composed of one proton and one electron. Helium is composed of two protons, two neutrons and two electrons. Carbon is composed of six protons, six neutrons and six electrons. Heavier elements, such as iron, lead and uranium, contain even larger numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons. Astronomers like to call all material made up of protons, neutrons and electrons "baryonic matter".

Until about twenty years ago, astronomers thought that the universe was composed almost entirely of this "baryonic matter", ordinary stuff. However, in the past decade, there has been ever more evidence accumulating that suggests there is something in the universe that we can not see, perhaps some new form of matter.

The Dark Matter Mystery

By measuring the motions of stars and gas, astronomers can "weigh" galaxies. In our own solar system, we can use the velocity of the Earth around the Sun to measure the Sun's mass. The Earth moves around the Sun at 30 kilometers per second (roughly sixty thousand miles per hour). If the Sun were four times more massive, then the Earth would need to move around the Sun at 60 kilometers per second in order for it to stay on its orbit. The Sun moves around the Milky Way at 225 kilometers per second. We can use this velocity (and the velocity of other stars) to measure the mass of our Galaxy. Similarly, radio and optical observations of gas and stars in distant galaxies enable astronomers to determine the distribution of mass in these systems.

The mass that astronomers infer for galaxies including our own is roughly ten times larger than the mass that can be associated with stars, gas and dust in a Galaxy. This mass discrepancy has been confirmed by observations of gravitational lensing, the bending of light predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

HST Image of a gravitational lens

HST Image of a Gravitational Lens
Text Link for an HST press release describing this image.

By measuring how the background galaxies are distorted by the foreground cluster, astronomers can measure the mass in the cluster. The mass in the cluster is more than five times larger than the inferred mass in visible stars, gas and dust.

Candidates for the Dark Matter

What is the nature of the "dark matter", this mysterious material that exerts a gravitational pull, but does not emit nor absorb light? Astronomers do not know.

There are a number of plausible speculations on the nature of the dark matter:

  • Brown Dwarfs: if a star's mass is less than one twentieth of our Sun, its core is not hot enough to burn either hydrogen or deuterium, so it shines only by virtue of its gravitational contraction. These dim objects, intermediate between stars and planets, are not luminous enough to be directly detectable by our telescopes. Brown Dwarfs and similar objects have been nicknamed MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects) by astronomers. These MACHOs are potentially detectable by gravitational lensing experiments. If the dark matter is made mostly of MACHOs, then it is likely that baryonic matter does make up most of the mass of the universe.
  • Supermassive Black Holes: these are thought to power distant quasars. Some astronomers speculate that there may be copious numbers of black holes comprising the dark matter. These black holes are also potentially detectable through their lensing effects.
  • New forms of matter: particle physicists, scientists who work to understand the fundamental forces of nature and the composition of matter, have speculated that there are new forces and new types of particles. One of the primary motivations for building "supercolliders" is to try to produce this matter in the laboratory. Since the universe was very dense and hot in the early moments following the Big Bang, the universe itself was a wonderful particle accelerator. Cosmologists speculate that the dark matter may be made of particles produced shortly after the Big Bang. These particles would be very different from ordinary ?baryonic matter?. Cosmologists call these hypothetical particles WIMPs (for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) or "non-baryonic matter".

WMAP and Dark Matter

By making accurate measurements of the cosmic microwave background fluctuations, WMAP is able to measure the basic parameters of the Big Bang model including the density and composition of the universe. WMAP measures the density of baryonic and non-baryonic matter to an accuracy of better than 5%. It is also able to determine some of the properties of the non-baryonic matter: the interactions of the non-baryonic matter with itself, its mass and its interactions with ordinary matter all affect the details of the cosmic microwave background fluctuation spectrum.

WMAP determined that the universe is flat, from which it follows that the mean energy density in the universe is equal to the critical density (within a 2% margin of error). This is equivalent to a mass density of 9.9 x 10-30 g/cm3, which is equivalent to only 5.9 protons per cubic meter. Of this total density, we now know the breakdown to be:

  • 4% Atoms, 23% Cold Dark Matter, 73% Dark Energy. Thus 96% of the energy density in the universe is in a form that has never been directly detected in the laboratory. The actual density of atoms is equivalent to roughly 1 proton per 4 cubic meters.
  • Fast moving neutrinos do not play any major role in the evolution of structure in the universe. They would have prevented the early clumping of gas in the universe, delaying the emergence of the first stars, in conflict with the new WMAP data.
  • The data places new constraints on the Dark Energy. It seems more like a "cosmological constant" than a negative-pressure energy field called "quintessence". But quintessence is not ruled out.

Other Interesting Sites and Further Reading:

On dark matter:

  • Visit the dark matter page at the Berkeley Cosmology Group.
  • A list of popular books on dark matter and the Big Bang.
  • A recent introductory html article by David Spergel on searching for dark matter. This article is geared towards physics undergraduates and will appear in "Some Outstanding Problems in Astrophysics", edited by J.N. Bahcall and J.P. Ostriker.

On MACHOs:

On gravitational lensing:

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Last updated: Tuesday, 03-01-2005 Skip Additional Sub Section and Site Navigation. Return to page top.

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