The Man Who’s Trying to Kill Dark Matter
by NATALIE WOLCHOVER
The Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde argues that dark matter does not exist.
FOR 80 YEARS, scientists have puzzled over the way galaxies and other cosmic structures appear to gravitate toward something they cannot see. This hypothetical “dark matter” seems to outweigh all visible matter by a startling ratio of five to one, suggesting that we barely know our own universe. Thousands of physicists are doggedly searching for these invisible particles.
But the dark matter hypothesis assumes scientists know how matter in the sky ought to move in the first place. At the end of 2016, a series of developments has revived a long-disfavored argument that dark matter doesn’t exist after all. In this view, no missing matter is needed to explain the errant motions of the heavenly bodies; rather, on cosmic scales, gravity itself works in a different way than either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein predicted.
The latest attempt to explain away dark matter is a much-discussed proposal by Erik Verlinde, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam who is known for bold and prescient, if sometimes imperfect, ideas. In a dense 51-page paper posted online on Nov. 7, Verlinde casts gravity as a byproduct of quantum interactions and suggests that the extra gravity attributed to dark matter is an effect of “dark energy”—the background energy woven into the space-time fabric of the universe.
Instead of hordes of invisible particles, “dark matter is an interplay between ordinary matter and dark energy,” Verlinde said.