Maleficent dark matter: Part I

We might not have gotten here without dark matter. It was the gravitational pull of dark matter, which makes up most of the mass of galactic structures, that kept heavy elements — the raw material of Earth-like rocky planets — from flying away after the first round of supernovae at the advent of the stelliferous era. Without this invisible pull, all structures would have been much smaller than seen today, and stars much more rare.

Thus with knowledge of dark matter comes existential gratitude. But the microscopic identity of dark matter is one of the biggest scientific enigmas of our times, and what we don’t know could yet kill us. This two-part series is about the dangerous end of our ignorance, reviewing some inconvenient prospects sketched out in the dark matter literature. Reader discretion is advised.

[Note: The scenarios outlined here are based on theoretical speculations of dark matter’s identity. Such as they are, these are unlikely to occur, and even if they do, extremely unlikely within the lifetime of our species, let alone that of an individual. In other words, nobody’s sleep or actuarial tables need be disturbed.]

The dark matter wind could blow in mischief. Image source: Freese et al.

Carcinogenic dark matter

Maurice Goldhaber quipped that “you could feel it in your bones” that protons are cosmologically long-lived, as otherwise our bodies would have self-administered a lethal dose of ionizing radiation. (This observation sets a lower limit on the proton lifetime at a comforting 10^7 times the age of the universe.) Could we laugh similarly about dark matter? The Earth is probably amid a wind of particle dark matter, a wind that could trigger fatal ionization in our cells if encountered too frequently. The good news is that if dark matter is made of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), K. Freese and C. Savage report safety: “Though WIMP interactions are a source of radiation in the body, the annual exposure is negligible compared to that from other natural sources (including radon and cosmic rays), and the WIMP collisions are harmless to humans.

The bad news is that the above statement assumes dark matter is distributed smoothly in the Galactic halo. There are interesting cosmologies in which dark matter collects in high-density “clumps” (a.k.a. “subhalos”, “mini-halos”,  or “mini-clusters”). According to J. I. Collar, the Earth encountering these clumps every 30–100 million years could explain why mass extinctions of life occur periodically on that timescale. During transits through the clumps, dark matter particles could undergo high rates of elastic collisions with nuclei in life forms, injecting 100–200 keV of energy per micrometer of transit, just right to “induce a non-negligible amount of radiation damage to all living tissue“. We are in no hurry for the next dark clump.

Eruptive dark matter

If your dark matter clump doesn’t wipe out life efficiently via cancer,  A. Abbas and S. Abbas recommend waiting another five million years. It takes that long for the clump dark matter to gravitationally capture in Earth, settle in its core, self-annihilate, and heat the mantle, setting off planet-wide volcanic fireworks. The resulting chain of events would end, as the authors rattle off enthusiastically, in “the depletion of the ozone layer, global temperature changes, acid rain, and a decrease in surface ocean alkalinity.”

Dark matter settling in the Earth’s core could spell doom. Image source: J. Bramante & A. Goodman.

Armageddon dark matter

If cancer and volcanoes are not dark matter’s preferred methods of prompting mass extinction, it could get the job done with old-fashioned meteorite impacts.

It is usually supposed that dark matter occupies a spherical halo that surrounds the visible, star-and-gas-crammed, disk of the Milky Way.  This baryonic pancake was formed when matter, starting out in a spinning sphere, cooled down by radiating photons and shrunk in size along the axis of rotation; due to conservation of angular momentum the radial extent was preserved. No such dissipative process is known to govern dark matter, thus it retains its spherical shape. However, a small component of dark matter might have still cooled by emitting some unseen radiation such as “dark photons“. That would result in a “dark disk” sub-structure co-existing in the Galactic midplane with the visible disk. Every 35 million years the Solar System crosses the Galactic midplane, and when that happens, a dark disk of surface density of 10 M_\odot/pc^2 could tidally perturb the Oort Cloud and send comets shooting toward the inner planets, causing periodic mass extinctions. So suggest L. Randall and M. Reece, whose arXiv comment “4 figures, no dinosaurs” is as much part of the particle physics lore as Randall’s book that followed the paper, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

We note in passing that SNOLAB, the underground laboratory in Sudbury, ON that houses the dark matter experiments DAMIC, DEAP, and PICO, and future home of NEWS-G, SENSEISuper-CDMS and ARGO, is located in the Creighton Mine — where ore deposits were formed by a two billion year-old comet impact. Perhaps the dark disk nudges us to detect its parent halo.

A drift (horizontal passage) in Creighton Mine, 2.1 km underground. Around the corner is SNOLAB, where several experiments searching for dark matter are located. The mine owes its existence to a meteorite impact — perhaps triggered by a Galactic disk of dark matter. Photo: N. Raj.

In the second part of the series we will look — if we’re still here — at more surprises that dark matter could have planned for us. Stay tuned.


[1] Dark Matter collisions with the Human Body, K. Freese & D. Savage, Phys.Lett.B 717 (2012) 25-28.

[2] Clumpy cold dark matter and biological extinctions, J. I. Collar, Phys.Lett.B 368 (1996) 266-269.

[3] Volcanogenic dark matter and mass extinctions, S. Abbas & A. Abbas, Astropart.Phys. 8 (1998) 317-320

[4] Dark Matter as a Trigger for Periodic Comet Impacts, L. Randall & M. Reece, Phys.Rev.Lett. 112 (2014) 161301

[5] Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, L. Randall, Harper Collins: Ecco Press‎ (2015)

Adjectivous dark matter

How would you describe dark matter in one word? Mysterious? Ubiquitous? Massive? Theorists often try to settle the question in the title of a paper — with a single adjective. Thanks to this penchant we now have the possibility of cannibal dark matter. To be sure, in the dark world eating one’s own kind is not considered forbidden, not even repulsive. Just a touch selfish, maybe. And it could still make you puffy — if you’re inflatable and not particularly inelastic. Otherwise it makes you plain superheavy.

Below are more uni-verbal dark matter candidates in the literature. Some do make you wonder if the title preceded the premise. But they all remind you of how much fun it is, this quest for dark matter’s identity. Keep an eye out on arXiv for these gems!

anapole, asymmetric, atomic, brane-world, charged, co-interacting, coloured, cryptobaryonic, disformal, fluid, freeze-twin, gluequark, GUTzilla, homeopathic, impeded, inflaxion, Kaluza-Klein, luminous, macro, minimal, monodromy, \nu-inflaton, parafermionic, relaxion, resonant, self-destructing, self-interacting, singlet-doublet, spectator, super-cool, technicolor, topological, undulating, unparticle, wave.

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Dark matter, in addition to consuming physicists, could also be cannibal. Image: Gan Khoon Lay, Noun Project.