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The missing piece in understanding the Universe: A conversation with Stacy McGaugh

Today we talk to Dr. Stacy McGaugh, Chair of the Astronomy Department at Case Western Reserve University about one of the most significant unsolved problems in astrophysics.


David: Hi Stacy. You had set out to disprove MOND and instead found evidence to support it. That sounds like the poster child for how science works. Was praise forthcoming?

Stacy: In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, I set out to try to understand low surface brightness galaxies. These are diffuse systems of stars and gas that rotate like the familiar bright spirals, but whose stars are much more spread out. Why? How did these things come to be? Why were they different from brighter galaxies? How could we explain their properties? These were the problems I started out working on that inadvertently set me on a collision course with MOND.


I did not set out to prove or disprove either MOND or dark matter. I was not really even aware of MOND at that time. I had heard of it only on a couple of occasions, but I hadn't paid any attention, and didn't really know anything about it. Why would I bother? It was already well established that there had to be dark matter.

I worked to develop our understanding of low surface brightness galaxies in the context of dark matter. Their blue colors, low metallicities, high gas fractions, and overall diffuse nature could be explained if they had formed in dark matter halos that are themselves lower than average density: they occupy the low concentration side of the distribution of dark matter halos at a given mass. I found this interpretation quite satisfactory, so gave me no cause to doubt dark matter to that point.


This picture made two genuine predictions that had yet to be tested. First, low surface brightness galaxies should be less strongly clustered than brighter galaxies. Second, having their mass spread over a larger area, they should shift off of the Tully-Fisher relation defined by denser galaxies. The first prediction came true, and for a period I was jubilant that we had made an important new contribution to our understanding of both galaxies and dark matter. The second prediction failed badly: low surface brightness galaxies adhere to the same Tully-Fisher relation that other galaxies follow.


I tried desperately to understand the failure of the second prediction in terms of dark matter. I tried what seemed like a thousand ways to explain this, but ultimately they were all tautological: I could only explain it if I assumed the answer from the start. The adherence of low surface brightness galaxies to the Tully-Fisher relation poses a serious fine-tuning problem: the distribution of dark matter must be adjusted to exactly counterbalance that of the visible matter so as not to leave any residuals. This makes no sense, and anyone who claims it does is not thinking clearly.

It was in this crisis of comprehension in which I became aware that MOND predicted exactly what I was seeing. No fine-tuning was required. Low surface brightness galaxies followed the same Tully-Fisher relation as other galaxies because the modified force law stipulates that they must. It was only at this point (in the mid-'90s) at which I started to take MOND seriously. If it had got this prediction right, what else did it predict?

I was still convinced that the right answer had to be dark matter. There was, after all, so much evidence for it. So this one prediction must be a fluke; surely it would fail the next test. That was not what happened: MOND passed test after test after test, successfully predicting observations both basic and detailed that dark matter theory got wrong or did not even address. It was only after this experience that I realized that what I thought was evidence for dark matter was really just evidence that something was wrong: the data cannot be explained with ordinary gravity without invisible mass. The data - and here I mean ALL the data - were mostly ambiguous: they did not clearly distinguish whether the problem was with mass we couldn't see or with the underlying equations from which we inferred the need for dark matter.


So to get back to your original question, yes - this is how science should work. I hadn’t set out to test MOND, but I had inadvertently performed exactly the right experiment for that purpose. MOND had its predictions come true where the predictions of other theories did not: both my own theory and those of others who were working in the context of dark matter. We got it wrong while MOND got it right. That led me to change my mind: I had been wrong to be sure the answer had to be dark matter, and to be so quick to dismiss MOND. Admitting this was the most difficult struggle I ever faced in my career.


David: From the perspective of dark matter, how does one understand MOND’s success?

Stacy: One does not. That the predictions of MOND should come true in a universe dominated by dark matter makes no sense.


Before I became aware of MOND, I spent lots of time trying to come up with dark matter-based explanations for what I was seeing. It didn't work. Since then, I have continued to search for a viable explanation with dark matter. I have not been successful. Others have claimed such success, but whenever I look at their work, it always seems that what they assert to be a great success is just a specific elaboration of a model I had already considered and rejected as obviously unworkable. The difference boils down to Occam's razor. If you give dark matter theory enough free parameters, it can be adjusted to “predict” pretty much anything. But the best we can hope to do with dark matter theory is to retroactively explain what MOND successfully predicted in advance. Why should we be impressed by that?

David: Does MOND fail in clusters?


Stacy: Yes and no: there are multiple tests in clusters. MOND passes some and flunks others - as does dark matter. The most famous test is the baryon fraction. This should be one in MOND - all the mass is normal baryonic matter. With dark matter, it should be the cosmic ratio of normal to dark matter (about 1:5).


MOND fails this test: it explains most of the discrepancy in clusters, but not all of it. The dark matter picture does somewhat better here, as the baryon fraction is close to the cosmic expectation — at least for the richest clusters of galaxies. In smaller clusters and groups of galaxies, the normal matter content falls short of the cosmic value. So both theories suffer a “missing baryon” problem: MOND in rich clusters; dark matter in everything smaller.


Another test is the mass-temperature relation. Both theories predict a relation between the mass of a cluster and the temperature of the gas it contains, but they predict different slopes for this relation. MOND gets the slope right but the amplitude wrong, leading to the missing baryon problem above. Dark matter gets the amplitude right for the most massive clusters, but gets the slope wrong - which leads to it having a missing baryon problem for systems smaller than the largest clusters.


There are other tests. Clusters continue to merge; the collision velocity of merging clusters is predicted to be higher in MOND than with dark matter. For example, the famous bullet cluster, which is often cited as a contradiction to MOND, has a collision speed that is practically impossible with dark matter: there just isn’t enough time for the two components of the bullet to accelerate up to the observed relative speed if they fall together under the influence of normal gravity and the required amount of dark mass. People have argued over the severity of this perplexing problem, but the high collision speed happens quite naturally in MOND as a consequence of its greater effective force of attraction. So, taken at face value, the bullet cluster both confirms and refutes both theories!


I could go on… one expects clusters to form earlier and become more massive in MOND than in dark matter. There are some indications that this is the case - the highest redshift clusters came as a surprise to conventional structure formation theory - but the relative numbers of clusters as a function of mass seems to agree well with current expectations with dark matter. So clusters are a mixed bag.


More generally, there is a widespread myth that MOND fits rotation curves, but gets nothing else right. This is what I expected to find when I started fact checking, but the opposite is true. MOND explains a huge variety of data well. The presumptive superiority of dark matter is just that - a presumption.


David: At a physics colloquium two decades ago, Vera Rubin described how theorists were willing and eager to explain her data to her. At an astronomy colloquium a few years later, you echoed that sentiment in relation to your data on velocity curves. One concludes that theorists are uniquely insightful and generous people. Is there anyone you would like to thank for putting you straight?

Stacy: So they perceive themselves to be.


MOND has made many successful a priori predictions. This is the golden standard of the scientific method. If there is another explanation for it, I’d like to know what it is. As your question supposes, many theorists have offered such explanations. At most one of them can be correct. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation.


David: What are MOND people working on these days?

Stacy: Any problem that is interesting in extragalactic astronomy is interesting in the context of MOND. Outstanding questions include planes of satellite dwarf galaxies, clusters of galaxies, the formation of large scale structure, and the microwave background. MOND-specific topics include the precise value of the MOND acceleration constant, predicting the velocity dispersions of dwarf galaxies, and the search for the predicted external field effect, which is a unique signature of MOND.


The phrasing of this question raises a sociological issue. I don’t know what a “MOND person” is. Before now, I have only heard it used as a pejorative. I am a scientist who has worked on many topics. MOND is just one of them. Does that make me a “MOND person”? I have also worked on dark matter, so am I also a “dark matter person”? Are these mutually exclusive?


I have attended conferences where I have heard people say ‘“MOND people” do this’ or ‘“MOND people” fail to do that.’ Never does the speaker of these words specify who they’re talking about: “MOND people” are a nameless Other. In all cases, I am more familiar with the people and the research they pretend to describe, but in no way do I recognize what they’re talking about. It is just a way of saying “Those People” are Bad.


There are many experts on dark matter in the world. I am one of them. There are rather fewer experts on MOND. I am also one of them. Every one of these “MOND people” is also an expert on dark matter. This situation is not reciprocated: many experts on dark matter are shockingly ignorant about MOND. I was once guilty of that myself, but realized that ignorance is not a sound basis on which to base a scientific judgement.


David: Are you tired of getting these types of questions?

Stacy: Yes and no. No, in that these are interesting questions about fundamental science. That is always fun to talk about. Yes, in that I find myself having the same arguments over and over again, usually with scientists who remain trapped in the misconceptions I suffered myself a quarter century ago, but whose minds are closed to ideas that threaten their sacred cows. If dark matter is a real, physical substance, then show me a piece already.


David: Thank you Professor!



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