What’s in the dark? Countless generations have gazed up at the night sky and asked this question—the same question that cosmologists ask themselves as they study the universe. The answer turns out to be surprising and rich. The space between stars is filled with an exotic substance called “dark matter” that exerts gravity but does not emit, absorb, or reflect light. The space between galaxies is rife with “dark energy” that creates a sort of cosmic antigravity causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Together, dark matter and dark energy account for 95 percent of the content of the universe. News reporters and science journalists routinely talk about these findings using terms that they assume we have a working knowledge of, but do you really understand how astronomers arrive at their findings or what it all means? Cosmologists face a conundrum: how can we study substances we cannot see, let alone manipulate? A powerful approach is to observe objects whose motion is influenced by gravity. Einstein predicted that gravity can act like a lens to bend light. Today we see hundreds of cases of this—instances where the gravity of a distant galaxy distorts our view of a more distant object, creating multiple images or spectacular arcs on the sky. Gravitational lensing is now a key part of the international quest to understand the invisible substance that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the universe together. A Ray of Light in a Sea of Dark Matter offers readers a concise, accessible explanation of how astronomers probe dark matter. Readers quickly gain an understanding of what might be out there, how scientists arrive at their findings, and why this research is important to us. Engaging and insightful, Charles Keeton gives everyone an opportunity to be an active learner and listener in our ever-expanding universe.
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About the Author
CHARLES KEETON is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rutgers University. He has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope and observatories in Arizona and Chile, and published more than 90 articles in astronomy journals. In 2010, Dr. Keeton received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Barack Obama.
Table of Contents
1 What’s in the Dark?
Astronomers use a variety of intellectual tools to study objects they cannot touch or even see.
2 When Mass Is Like Glass
Gravitational lensing can be understood through an analogy with a glass lens shaped like the base of a wine glass.
3 How Do You Weigh a Galaxy?
The motions of stars and light rays probe a galaxy’s gravitational field, and hence its mass.
4 Is Dark Matter MACHO or WIMPy?
Gravitational lensing within our galaxy helped demonstrate that dark matter is not just normal matter that is hard to see. It must be something exotic, which physicists are now trying to catch.
5 Finding What’s Missing
Conventional dark matter theory predicts that galaxies are surrounded by invisible clumps of dark matter. Lensing can help find them.
6 “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away”
Clusters of galaxies act as cosmic telescopes, helping astronomers study distant objects that would otherwise be too small and faint to see.
GlossaryNotes on Sources