Dark Matter Technologies
This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Get access to my streaming video service, Nebula, when you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in the description. Dark Matter is the most mysterious substance in the Universe, and also what most of it seems to be made of, and yet it may be the keystone of building future civilizations. Dark Matter… we don’t even know what the heck the stuff is, so it might seem hard to discuss technologies that make use of it. At the same time, we do know a few things about it with great certainty, and a few more with some confidence, and one of those is that Dark Matter makes up the vast majority of everything in this Universe. Given that
it does make up most of everything, finding ways to use it is likely to be on every civilization’s wish list of technological advancements, and that’s our main focus for today, how civilizations would use this hyper abundant material if they could, and in what ways they might. For a type of matter that is apparently so common, it is rather irritating that we know so little about it, and we should probably start by talking about what we do know about it. First, it almost certainly exists. That irritates a lot of folks and often raises many objections, some are reasonable objections, but some of those aren’t terribly valid. As an example, we’ve never seen any dark matter directly, and that seems a good objection, until one remembers that we’ve never seen most of Earth directly, including its mantle and core, and never hesitate to discuss its interior, nor the interior of our sun or any other star. We also don’t “See” subatomic particles,
they’re smaller than light waves and we detect them mostly by blowing stuff up and looking at the pattern of the wreckage to see what could have caused it, so to speak. So there are a lot of legitimate objections to dark matter and we’ll discuss some of them, and discussed more of them a few years back in our Dark Matter episode, but the ones hinging on us not being able to directly detect it aren’t good ones. Most particles we first detected were detected by indirect means, like picking up gamma rays to prove the mass of the electron and positron, after a pair of them had collided and emitted those gamma rays. Generally we’ve measured the mass of other atoms and their interiors by seeing how much other charged particles were deflected by the protons in their core when passing by them. Nor is the time argument a good one. Folks
say we’ve been looking for it for a couple decades now and still haven’t found it, but that’s not true. We haven’t been looking for dark matter unsuccessfully for a couple decades, we’ve been looking for dark matter unsuccessfully for over a century. We have all sorts of particles we hypothesized decades before we proved they existed… and considerably more we hypothesized and haven’t found yet or even ruled out. Dark Matter has been bugging us a lot longer, since before we even knew what a galaxy was, what subatomic particles were, what 2 of the 4 fundamental physical forces were, or how those particles interacted with those forces or didn’t. Way back in 1884 Lord Kelvin estimated that
there had to be a lot more mass we couldn’t see than we could see to explain the velocities of stars orbiting the milky way. He didn’t assume any type of exotic matter at the time, just mundane matter not in stars, and that was the general notion for a long time. We just assumed it was various things which were normal but dark, like interstellar dust or planets, or later even stellar remnants. Indeed that was one suspected culprit back in Kelvin’s
day because we assumed stars gave light off from being formed very hot and slowly cooling, as we had no clue that nuclear fusion took place inside stars. Problem was, we did find a lot of this mundane dark matter, and it never even came close to adding up. In modern times, we know that virtually every galaxy we can see has a lot more mass than the stars we see in it can account for. But how do we know that? The calculation uses the fact that for an object in a roughly circular orbit, the centrifugal force on it is equal to the gravitational force it’s subjected to by the body it's orbiting. So if we determine the distance to the galaxy of interest, we can use it’s angular size in our field of view to determine its radius. If we observe it over time, we can measure the speed of the objects orbiting at the galaxy’s edges. From the orbital radius and velocity, we calculate
the centrifugal force, which is equal to the gravity exerted on it, which tells us the mass of the galaxy. But when we use the starlight from a galaxy to determine the numbers and types of the stars in it and add up the masses of those types, we consistently find that the luminous mass of most galaxies is only about 1/10 of their gravitational mass. We can see the speeds of stars on the outer edges orbiting them and we can see how much they pull on neighboring galaxies, and every alternative answer for it not being gravity didn’t work out. Tons were tried. Well then we had to ask ourselves what generates gravity. In point of fact it isn't actually mass, any type of energy generates gravity,
but mass is one type of energy, under Einstein’s E=mc², and all the other types of energy except light speed objects like photons are associated with mass. For instance you can have an awfully lot of kinetic energy on an object with mass, but for it to come anywhere near paralleling the amount of energy tied up in the mass itself, it needs to be moving at relativistic speeds. Galaxies are hugely massive affairs but even they can’t contain objects moving at those speeds for long, so your only two remaining options are rotational energy of certain very dense objects, like black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs, or the random kinetic energy of particles in very hot objects, again like neutrons stars and black holes. Only a tiny fraction of stars end up as neutron stars and black holes, and all known stars combined won’t add up to the missing mass, so it's not these stellar remnants, there just aren’t enough of them. But it also means that missing energy generating all that gravity in galaxies has to be mass energy. Probably, we can’t rule out some other type of energy storage besides the known 5, which are mass, kinetic, potential, thermal, and radiant energy. Dark Energy does not fit the
bill incidentally, that appears to be evenly spread throughout the Universe whereas this missing mass we call dark matter clumps in galaxies. This is also why we often say it has to be cold, which in physics terms and context means the individual particles or objects of dark matter can’t be moving very fast or they would exceed a galaxy’s escape velocity and not clump into galaxies, this overall motion is random and thus can be thought of as heat energy or temperature. Galaxies tend to have escape velocities on the order of of hundreds of kilometers per second, so ‘Cold’ is a rather dubious term here, something with the velocity sufficient to escape a galaxy and the mass of a proton or neutron still has a temperature comparable to the inside of a star, in the sense of random kinetic energy being heat energy. That’s nothing compared to relativistic hot temperatures though, and is a bit problematic considering we always assume everything in the early Universe was ultra hot and cooled down by radiation and collision. Dark Matter doesn’t emit
photons as heat radiation, and do not collide with anything, even other bits of dark matter, or do so very infrequently. Which is the other thing, what is a collision? Down at the atomic scale the whole concept of physically rigid objects is out of play, it just doesn’t mean anything. Collisions occur using those fundamental physical forces. Not every known particle interacts with all of those either. Electrons, and their big brothers the muon and Tau particles, along with their anti-particles, are what we call leptons, and they don’t even notice the strong nuclear force that binds quarks together to make things like protons and neutrons. We have 4 fundamental forces, quarks, and thus things made from them, interact with all of 4, though many of those constructs, like the electrically neutral neutron don’t interact much with one of those. In the same
way, neutrinos don’t interact with the strong nuclear or electromagnetic force, just gravity, which everything seems to, and the weak nuclear force, and the latter so weakly that a neutrino could pass through a light year of lead and likely make the trip uninterrupted. Our best neutrino detection methods manage to nab the occasional one interacting with matter, while countless trillions will have passed through that same spot first. Neutrinos move at near light speed, within the tiniest fraction of a hairsbreadth of light speed, and have only a smidgen of mass, less than a millionth of what an electron has or a billionth of what a proton or neutron has, and a neutrino-antineutrino rest annihilation would produce an infrared photon, not the millions or billions of times more powerful gamma ray photons those other particle produce when annihilating with their antimatter opposites. They carry far more energy though, and it's almost all kinetic energy.
Neutrinos are not our focus for today, they are not dark matter though have been a popular suggestion in the past, but if you could make a thin foil able to absorb or reflect neutrinos, you’d have a rather awesome solar sail, and if you could make the equivalent of a Laser, a neutrino beam, that would be a great way to shove spaceships around, since it would mean a super powerful beam only handy for ship propulsion, not a giant doomsday beam like laser propulsion platforms would be if used for militant intent. The most popular suggested particle for dark matter these days is most easily thought of as something like a heavy neutrino. Neutrinos move at near light speed because they are created in events that typically kick out an electron and proton, or their antiparticles, at fairly high speeds, and the neutrino gets the same kick, but having vastly less mass, exits the event at a vastly higher speed. Imagine instead that such a particle had the
mass of proton or neutron or maybe even more, we do have some elementary particles more massive than them, 3 of the 6 quark types, charm, top, and bottom quarks out mass protons and neutrons, the top quark by a factor of a couple hundred, as does the electron’s big brother the Tau particle, and two of our 4 gauge bosons, the W and Z Bosons – the other two types of gauge bosons are the photon and the gluon, gauge bosons are what transmit the fundamental forces and the W and Z Boson being supermassive is why the Weak Force, which they transmit, is so weak, which is to say, so short range, they decay so rapidly they barely have time to carry the force anywhere. The Higgs Boson also outmasses protons and neutrons, and by more than a hundredfold. So of the current 17 elementary particles in the Standard Model, of which neutrinos are 3 incidentally, 7 of them are more massive than protons and neutrons, which are not elementary particles, and between the most massive, the top quark, and the least massive, the neutrinos, there is a mass difference of around a trillion. Keeping all that in mind, the idea that there’s a particle as weakly interacting as a neutrino but more massive than a proton or neutron doesn’t seem that far fetched. These Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, called WIMPs, are probably the most popular category of candidate for dark matter and will be our primary focus for technologies to discuss today. But they don’t have a lock on the title for dark matter constituents, and not
all of them require some new elementary particle. Many of these don’t even require some unknown type or quantity of matter, like MACHOs, or Massive Compact Halo Objects, such as black holes or brown dwarfs, and we have extensively discussed how valuable black hole technologies can be in other episodes, though MACHOs are not viewed as a good dark matter candidate at this time. However mundane solutions other than new types of particles can still represent valuable knowledge for new technologies. Remember, one way or another something generates an effect that causes either a great deal more gravity than all the known mundane matter around, or alters a fundamental force like gravity or electromagnetism to operate other than inverse square at big enough distances. If such variations exist, they can probably be exploited for technology, such as reversing them so gravity was stronger at nearer distances, for instance. One example is MOND, Modified Newtonian Dynamics, which was suggested in the earlier 1980s as a dark matter solution by proposing that gravity only acted as an inverse square force – weakening with the square of distance – out to a certain distance, beyond which it got much weaker. That doesn’t necessarily require magic either,
force carrying particles can decay over distances, that’s exactly why the weak force is so weak, the W and Z Bosons decay before covering even atomic distances, let alone astronomical ones, so if the graviton had a half-life of a billion years, gravity a billion years travel away would be half as strong as suspected. There’s an issue with that, a graviton would have to have some rest mass, particles with no mass experience no time and thus can’t have a half life, and gravity moves at light speed which no particle with mass can do, but gravity is hard to detect and the neutrino has a tiny amount of mass and moves within a fraction of light speed, as the theory suggests, so could a graviton, potentially being less massive and faster than even a neutrino. MOND had quite a following and had a fair few variations, but fell out of favor with the detection of the Bullet Cluster in 2006, a pair of colliding clusters of galaxies about 4 billion light years away. We’ll skip discussing why today, especially as there are some rebuttals in spite of many folks saying the bullet cluster shot MOND dead. See the episode on Dark Matter for more of the suggested types too. I mention it because if you found out that gravitons had a rest mass and could decay, for instance, that might start implying ways to generate gravitons without lots of mass or reflect or bounce them around, make a gravity laser, or GRASER, things like that. We are
very limited in discussing technologies relying on matter, or forces, we don’t understand, but this is what we can discuss today. Some are easy, if Dark Matter is any sort of particle that has mass, but doesn’t interact much, then if you can find something it does interact with, you can scoop it up and use it as a cheap source of mass. It would be useless as a building material, but becomes great not just for making gravity on artificial planets, freeing up not just valuable heavy elements but even hydrogen and helium for other uses, it also lets you do strange stuff, like create a big ball of dark matter with a deep gravity well, and yet so weakly interacting you could fly right through it. As an example, what happens if you dump around a stellar mass of dark matter into an existing star? None of that dark matter is getting blown away by that or sinking into the core, it just floats around generating gravity and minding its own business. The gravity it creates
though would not, and would squeeze that star down even more, speeding up fusion. It is potentially handy as a fuel source too, dark matter should have all the energy per unit of mass anything else does, so if you stuff it down a black hole it would work as a starship fuel, see our black hole starships episode for discussion of how we can use black holes for ships and power. So we do have at least one known way to manipulate dark matter. It does react with gravity, and while it would be very hard to get into a
black hole, once over the event horizon it is as stuck in there as anything else. It’s hard to get in because black holes are small, so the only way matter ever ends up in one is if by some freak chance it happens to run into the event horizon straight on. Normal matter can be sucked into an orbit of a black hole and as more of it accumulates, the bits orbiting the black hole can start bumping into each other, getting hot and falling in – this is the accretion disc. Dark Matter doesn’t do that. If it gets into orbit around
something, it will just keep orbiting, not clumping together. This is why dark matter in galaxies forms a roughly spherical shape while the matter in galaxies tends to form more of a disc. But dark matter can be absorbed by a black hole. And we estimate there’s a bit more than a proton’s mass of dark matter per cubic meter of intra-galactic space. Now a 3-solar mass black hole, which is generally about as small as can naturally form, will have a cubic volume inside its event horizon of about 3 trillion cubic meters, and would have absorbed all that dark matter locally present, but that’s only going to be about 4 picograms of mass, and even the big monster at our core, with a million times more mass and a billion, billion times more volume, would only have swallowed about 4 tons of dark matter.
Of course the stuff is moving, not static, so it would be more than that. Let’s assume we shot a black hole with a square kilometer of cross section through a galaxy on a 100 thousand light year path, or 10^21 meters, or slicing a column through a galaxy of 10^27 cubic meters. We’d still have only swept up a couple kilograms of dark matter. You can throw on more sail, so to speak, by having a cross section tens of thousands of kilometers across or even larger, one 10,000 kilometers across will sweep up dozens of trillions of tons of matter. Or deflect it or capture it for later use if we’re talking about a material
that absorbs dark matter instead of a black hole, or an artificial event horizon. Collecting dark matter is not likely to be an easy task, but if you can do it, then it represents a vastly bigger supply of matter and energy than all our mundane sources combined. It’s also quite possible there are dark matter only interactions, such as dark matter antimatter annihilation, or dark matter fusion, that might only be possible when you squeeze the stuff in rather tightly. If you had two such beams, one dark matter and one anti-dark matter, when and where they collided might be a very energetic event. That might also
be a terrifying weapon since dark matter would be hard to detect or deflect. And that’s assuming it doesn’t have other strange properties, many proposed dark matter candidates interact strongly with space, time, other matter, or other forces. As a reminder certain scenarios for dark matter would imply the ability to play with gravity more than we’d currently expect, and things like flat event horizons or gravitational scoops might be on the horizon at that point. Imagine for the moment we had some bit of Clarketech that let us stretch a black hole into a disc, like it was some balloon we could squish flatter. Now that implies the ability to manipulate gravity so it didn’t radiate omnidirectionally, but let's say we could, either flattening the gravity out into a disc or squishing it into a pair of polar jets. See our anti-gravity episode for more discussion
of gravity-based technologies, but such manipulation might let you have a spaceship that could suck in matter, even dark matter, as it flew by. That’s also a potentially potent weapon and shield too, though it should be noted that any time two event horizons touch they will merge to an external viewer. A black hole event horizon has a radius proportional to its mass, and a cross-section proportional to the square of mass, so you can make really enormous black holes and get dark matter that way and presumably an awful lot of dark matter will get absorbed in the post-stellar era of the Universe as you start having all other matter get sucked into black holes all orbiting each other and perturbing everything else orbiting, including dark matter, till it combines together or gets ejected into the extra-galactic void. Of course that scenario would tend to imply you didn’t have little bits of physical dark matter lying around in favor of something like MOND, but it's also possible the solution to dark matter will turn out to be two different effects. Which is to say we have problems pinning down what dark matter is because our predictions keep missing, and they might do so because its two overlapping and unrelated effects that amplify a given net effect we’re seeing, as in we do have WIMPS and we do have decaying gravity, but fewer and less of them. You would need to have someway to manipulate the stuff, but if you do it is very useful – probably with valuable properties we don’t even know about, you might be able to make unique materials out of it, but in space where things are quite empty, it's nice to have something to push against but only when you want to. Neutrinos and neutrino-like particles, weakly interacting particles, if you have
something that can interact with them more strongly, it lets you use them – potentially selectively – to interact when you want. When flying through space I want to interact with nothing, except for when I do, like for slowing down or turning, so we often contemplate unfurling reflective solar sails or magnetic fields to interact with solar wind. Ones able to work with neutrinos or neutrino—like types of dark matter would be useful for the same reason. Dark matter is not dense, but with a big enough sail you’ll hit some,
and the momentum exchange is going to be based on your speed. Also if these are particles, it may be possible to build something out of them if we understand them better, on the flip side, the ability to mimic this weak interaction or non-interaction can be handy. We often see force fields in science fiction as a means of defense, but the other popular method tends to be turning invisible or ethereal, so you either couldn’t be seen or things went right through you. In practice that has to be both, since folks can only see you if light bounces off you, which means a laser beam would bounce off you too, or more importantly would vaporize you. If I can see you I can interact with you and if I can interact with you, I can hurt you, or use you to hurt someone else. But if you can make yourself unable to interact or be interacted with, that’s a very good defense, and if you could make your ship or space station have that weakly interacting property temporarily, or even build out of dark matter, that’s a very good method of both stealth and defense. As an example of weaponizing WIMP-style Dark
Matter, you could probably put a cloud of it around someone’s planet as a way of keeping them earth-bound, positioning it either to raise the surface gravity, or to make a cloud in circular orbit over the planet, so the surface gravity stayed the same but the escape velocity was arbitrarily high. You could wrap that planet so thick in dark matter that time slowed down on it and only relativistic spaceships could leave it, a good way to quarantine a worrisome species you didn’t want out in the galaxy but didn’t want to interfere with or destroy - a situation reminiscent of the people of Cricket from Douglas Adams’ novel Life, the Universe, and Everything. So we’ve talked about spaceships and power, and again it’s a great power source simply as raw material we can feed into a black hole that is abundant and not useful for other things, assuming of course we can find a way to gather it. However, same as we discuss filling shell worlds up with hydrogen or black holes to generate gravity, dark matter offers that same route. We don’t know much about
it, but we know it doesn’t interact much, even with itself, so we should be able to cram the stuff together quite tightly without the normal pressure issues. We normally say if you want gravity on something small, without using spin-gravity, you need micro-black holes, but ultra-dense dark matter might be an option too, squeezing tons of it into a volume the size of a pinhead. It's going to act very differently than normal matter in a lot of counterintuitive ways. For instance if you had a solid block of the stuff cooled down to ice cube temperatures and threw it into a pot of boiling water, it would not heat up. Partially because it would fall right through the pot, but if that pot were lined with whatever your hand was covered in to toss it in, then the ice cube of dark matter could sit in that boiling water for eons and pick up no heat from the water. It would also bounce up and down on the bottom of the pot over and over again, unaffected by the water. Same dark matter could fall through the pot, and the Earth, and fall through
the center and right back up again, then down again, over and over. If you’ve got something you can sheath it in, that it does bounce off of, then you could be making ultra-dense and heavy objects, which is very handy for certain more abstract megastructures where you want gravity lower or higher in certain places. Unsurprisingly its use as a source of cheap mass appeals to me for worldbuilding, and that might bias me towards the WIMP version of dark matter, but other versions would have their uses too. Some dark matter options include particles that interact with gravity and some
unknown fifth force, and if that force only interacts with dark matter we wouldn’t even see it, except in its tendency to draw dark matter together but not very much. This has some problems, for instance it can’t be too strong or, since dark matter does interact with gravity, that fifth-force interaction should allow more clumping and result in giant black holes all over the place. We also tend to assume dark matter, if a particle, would have an antiparticle, and when it annihilates it obviously doesn’t produce photons as most commonly happens in matter-antimatter annihilation, as we would notice that. Unless
it does so at the 1.9 millimeter range, that of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which is unlikely and would really mess with our current cosmological models. But it might annihilate into some other form of energy too, for instance dark energy, which causes bits of new space to emerge all over the place. I often make a point of telling folks that in spite of the similar name, and extreme abundance, dark matter and dark energy don’t have anything to do with each other. That we know of anyway, and there are a few dark matter theories that do tie it to dark energy, such as GIMPs, Gravitationally-Interacting Massive Particles, which some folks feel fit better with the Vacuum Solutions to Einstein’s equations for gravity, the basic notion being bits of dark matter were singularities of dark energy. As I mentioned earlier, its not mass that
generates gravity, its energy, and mass is just the easiest dense form of it, and so you can make a black hole or singularity out of any very dense clump of energy, cram enough photons in one place fast enough and you’ll get a little black hole. So presumably cram enough dark energy in one place and you get a singularity too. Though given that dark energy’s only known property is its association with expanding space I’d wonder how you would cram it together. But it might be crammed together initially, and decays, as we expect small black holes to do, and causes space to emerge when it does. Primordial black holes is another popular dark matter option. The early universe was super-dense and black hole formation without a supernova implosion, or even bits of energy that never expanded in the first place, are certainly plausible options. One issue with
that is that we think black holes decay, and the smaller the faster, that’s Stephen Hawking’s original famous contribution to physics. It is only a theory, there is no experimental proof of black hole evaporation. Assuming that is right, then a primordial black hole could not mass less than 10^11 kilograms, 100 megatons, or they would have evaporated by now. Now this means none of them could be, or we would see the radiation of their evaporation all over the place. We don’t know that primordial black hole mass would be evenly distributed, with some massing a ton, some 100 tons, and some 100 billion, and all points in between, but we do know it can’t be evenly distributed at masses below 100 megatons unless our concept of black hole evaporation is wrong. Otherwise we would see radiation being emitted corresponding to those black holes evaporations.
There are a number of other issues with primordial black holes as dark matter and the option, like MOND, is less popular these days, but if true it would make for a great technology, see our black hole episodes for why. But there’s some more problems there too. First, if black holes do not evaporate, then they become eternal traps for matter, though we can still generate power with them by dumping matter into them, though it is hard to put matter into a micro-black hole. However they should be able to absorb matter rapidly inside something like a neutron star, and were that the case the larger ones, in excess of a trillion tons, would be able to capture mass in a neutron star and ought to cause detonations of them that we’re not seeing. Indeed all things included, it's really only black holes in the 10 to 500 gigaton range that would have a decent chance of not leaving various other telltales of their existence we’re not detecting, and we don’t know any reason why primordial black holes would have formed in that mass range but not in others. Of course we don’t know why all the various subatomic particles come as specific masses either, like 511 kilo-electronvolts for the electron, so primordial black holes might do so for the same reason. Assuming they did though, and were our dark matter candidate, they would potentially be very handy. The ones on the higher end could
be force-fed matter to make them bigger, but the smaller ones, at 10 gigatons, would give off about 3.6 megawatts of power, and do it for quadrillions of years, while those on the higher end, 500 gigatons, would give off 1400 watts, and for even longer, nearly a billion-trillion years. Because of their sheer mass they don’t make for good starship drives, but would be created for stationary places and indeed you’d probably just build around such medium sized primordial black holes as you found them. We would also hopefully be seeing them in the future by getting better at detecting the background radiation they would be giving off universe wide and isolating it from other known sources, like the CMB. Fundamentally though the real power of Dark Matter probably won’t be for power generation, that’s just something that seems a probable use based on what little we know. As a last example, one of the candidates for dark matter is that it isn’t crunched down mass or even energy but crushed down dimensions, and both additional space dimension and additional time dimensions, and if that were true and became something we could work with, opens up all sorts of scenarios like storing time, manipulating time, and maybe even twisting or ripping space-time. Fundamentally the more we learn about Dark
Matter, the more we can explore what we might do with it, but I hope from today it becomes clear why wanting to find out what dark matter’s properties are is about more than just answering a big question about what the Universe is made of, it's about recognizing that anything that abundant is useful simply in its abundance, and that its sheer mysterious nature implies properties we might be able to use for goals as mysterious and massive as dark matter is itself. One of the things we were discussing today was how even though we cannot see Dark Matter directly, we can still know it’s there in much the same way we know what the inside of atoms or our planet or our Sun looks like. It reminded me of a topic in a similar vein folks often raise, and that’s if mathematics is a real thing or something humanity made up, is math invented or discovered, and my friend Jade from Up and Atom, who were previously teamed up with to discuss Boltzmann Brains & Anthropic Principle, recently released a Nebula Original addressing if Math was invented or discovered.
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