So the radial acceleration relation is a new law of nature. What does it mean?

One reason we have posed it as a law of nature is that it is interpretation-free. It is a description of how nature works – in this case, a rule for how galaxies rotate. Why nature behaves thus is another matter.

Some people have been saying the RAR (I tire of typing out “radial acceleration relation”) is a problem for dark matter, while others seem to think otherwise. Lets examine this.

The RAR has a critical scale g = 1.2 · 10-10 m s-2. At high acceleration, above this scale, we don’t need dark matter: systems like the solar system or the centers of high surface brightness galaxies are WYSIWYG. At low accelerations, below this scale, we begin to need dark matter. The lower the acceleration, the more dark matter we need.

OK, so this means there is little to no dark matter when the baryons are dense (high gbar), but progressively more as gbar becomes smaller than the critical scale g. Low gbar happens when the surface density of baryons is low. So the amount of dark matter scales inversely with baryonic surface density.

That’s weird.

This is weird for a number of reasons. First, there is no reason for the dark matter to care what the baryons are doing when dark matter dominates. When gobs ≫ gbar the dark matter greatly outweighs the baryons, which simply become tracer particles in the gravitational potential of the dark matter halo. There is no reason for the dark matter to know or care about what the baryonic tracer particles are doing. And yet the RAR persists as a tight correlation well into this regime. It is as if the baryonic tail wags the dark matter dog.

Second, there should be more dark matter where there are more baryons. Galaxies form by baryons falling into dark matter halos. As they do so, they dissipate energy and sink to the center of the halo. In this process, the drag some of the dark matter along with them in a process commonly referred to as “adiabatic compression.” In practice, the process need not be adiabatic, but the dark matter must respond to the rearrangement of the gravitational potential caused by the dissipative infall of the baryons.

These topics have been discussed at great length in the galaxy formation literature. Great arguments have erupted time and again about how best to implement the compression in models, and how big the effect is in practice. These details need not concern us here. What matters is that they are non-negotiable fundamentals of the dark matter paradigm.

Galaxies form by baryonic infall within dark matter halos. The halos form first while the baryons are still coupled to the photons prior to last scattering. This is one of the fundamental reasons we need non-baryonic cold dark matter that does not interact with photons: to get a jump on structure formation. Without it, we cannot get from the smooth initial condition observed in the cosmic microwave background to the rich amount of structure we see today.

As the baryons fall into halos, they must sink to the center to form galaxies. Why? Dark matter halos are much bigger than the galaxies that reside within them. All tracers of the gravitational potential say so. Initially, this might seem odd, as the baryons might to just track the dominant dark matter. But baryons are different: they can dissipate energy. By so doing, they can sink to the center – not all baryons need to sink to the centers of their dark matter halos, but enough to make a galaxy. This they must do in order to form the galaxies that we observe – galaxies that are more centrally condensed than their dark matter halos.

That’s enough, in return, to affect the dark matter. As the baryons dissipate, the gravitational potential is non-stationary. The dark matter distribution must respond to this change in the total gravitational potential. The net result is a further concentration of the dark matter towards the center of the halo: in effect, the baryons drag some dark matter along with them.

I have worked on adiabatic compression myself, but a nice illustration is given by this figure from Elbert et al. (2016):

Dark matter halos formed in numerical simulations illustrating the effect of adiabatic compression. One the left is a pristine halo without baryons. In the middle is a halo after formation of a disk galaxy. On right is a halo after formation of a more compact disk.

One can see by eye the compression caused by the baryons. The more dense the baryons become, the more dark matter they drag towards the center with them.

The fundamental elements of the dark matter paradigm, galaxy formation by baryonic infall and dissipation accompanied by the inevitable compression of the dark matter halo, inevitably lead us to expect that more baryons in the center means more dark matter as well. We observe the exact opposite in the RAR. As baryons become denser, they become the dominant component, to the point where they are the only component. Rather than more dark matter as we expect, more baryons means less dark matter in reality.

Third, the RAR correlation is continuous and apparently scatter-free over all accelerations. The data map from the regime of no dark matter at high accelerations to lots of dark matter at low accelerations in perfect 1:1 harmony with the distribution of the baryons. If we observe the distribution of baryons, we know the corresponding distribution of dark matter. The tail doesn’t just wag the dog. It tells it to sit, beg, and roll over.

Fourth, there is a critical scale in the data, g. That’s the scale where the mass discrepancy sets in. This is a purely empirical statement.

Cold dark matter is scale free. Being scale free is fundamental to its nature. It is essential to fitting the large scale structure, which it does quite well.

So why is there this ridiculous acceleration scale in the data?!? Who ordered this?! It should not be there.

So yes, the radial acceleration relation is a problem for the cold dark matter paradigm.

5 thoughts on “Four Strikes

  1. Your emphasis on the fact that cold dark matter is scale free makes it very easy to perceive the fundamental conflict with the RAR.

    Do you have any idea why there should be an acceleration scale at which the mass discrepancy sets in, and why it has the value that it does? From what I understand, in its original form MOND assumed there was an acceleration boundary a0, but it never explained it. Has there been progress on the origin of this scale (is it for instance understood to emerge in the dark matter fluid alternative, or on the contrary is it also plugged in ?)


  2. I am not aware of a good reason for why the scale a0 exists. There is the coincidence of this scale with cH0 and the square root of the cosmological constant. Maybe that the galactic mass discrepancy sets in at a scale comparable to the accelerating expansion of the universe is telling us something profound, or maybe it is just a numerical coincidence.


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