Divergence

Divergence

I read somewhere – I don’t think it was Kuhn himself, but someone analyzing Kuhn – that there came a point in the history of science where there was a divergence between scientists, with different scientists disagreeing about what counts as a theory, what counts as a test of a theory, what even counts as evidence. We have reached that point with the mass discrepancy problem.

For many years, I worried that if the field ever caught up with me, it would zoom past. That hasn’t happened. Instead, it has diverged towards a place that I barely recognize as science. It looks more like the Matrix – a simulation – that is increasingly sophisticated yet self-contained, making only parsimonious contact with observational reality and unable to make predictions that apply to real objects. Scaling relations and statistical properties, sure. Actual galaxies with NGC numbers, not so much. That, to me, is not science.

I have found it increasingly difficult to communicate across the gap built on presumptions buried so deep that they cannot be questioned. One obvious one is the existence of dark matter. This has been fueled by cosmologists who take it for granted and particle physicists eager to discover it who repeat “we know dark matter exists*; we just need to find it” like a religious mantra. This is now ingrained so deeply that it has become difficult to convey even the simple concept that what we call “dark matter” is really just evidence of a discrepancy: we do not know whether it is literally some kind of invisible mass, or a breakdown of the equations that lead us to infer invisible mass.

I try to look at all sides of a problem. I can say nice things about dark matter (and cosmology); I can point out problems with it. I can say nice things about MOND; I can point out problems with it. The more common approach is to presume that any failing of MOND is an automatic win for dark matter. This is a simple-minded logical fallacy: just because MOND gets something wrong doesn’t mean dark matter gets it right. Indeed, my experience has been that cases that don’t make any sense in MOND don’t make any sense in terms of dark matter either. Nevertheless, this attitude persists.

I made this flowchart as a joke in 2012, but it persists in being an uncomfortably fair depiction of how many people who work on dark matter approach the problem.

I don’t know what is right, but I’m pretty sure this attitude is wrong. Indeed, it empowers a form of magical thinking: dark matter has to be correct, so any data that appear to contradict it are either wrong, or can be explained with feedback. Indeed, the usual trajectory has been denial first (that can’t be true!) and explanation later (we knew it all along!) This attitude is an existential threat to the scientific method, and I am despondent in part because I worry we are slipping into a post-scientific reality, where even scientists are little more than priests of a cold, dark religion.


*If we’re sure dark matter exists, it is not obvious that we need to be doing expensive experiments to find it.

Why bother?

Bias all the way down

Bias all the way down

It often happens that data are ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. The evidence for dark matter is an obvious example. I frequently hear permutations on the statement

We know dark matter exists; we just need to find it.

This is said in all earnestness by serious scientists who clearly believe what they say. They mean it. Unfortunately, meaning something in all seriousness, indeed, believing it with the intensity of religious fervor, does not guarantee that it is so.

The way the statement above is phrased is a dangerous half-truth. What the data show beyond any dispute is that there is a discrepancy between what we observe in extragalactic systems (including cosmology) and the predictions of Newton & Einstein as applied to the visible mass. If we assume that the equations Newton & Einstein taught us are correct, then we inevitably infer the need for invisible mass. That seems like a very reasonable assumption, but it is just that: an assumption. Moreover, it is an assumption that is only tested on the relevant scales by the data that show a discrepancy. One could instead infer that theory fails this test – it does not work to predict observed motions when applied to the observed mass. From this perspective, it could just as legitimately be said that

A more general theory of dynamics must exist; we just need to figure out what it is.

That puts an entirely different complexion on exactly the same problem. The data are the same; they are not to blame. The difference is how we interpret them.

Neither of these statements are correct: they are both half-truths; two sides of the same coin. As such, one risks being wildly misled. If one only hears one, the other gets discounted. That’s pretty much where the field is now, and has it been stuck there for a long time.

That’s certainly where I got my start. I was a firm believer in the standard dark matter interpretation. The evidence was obvious and overwhelming. Not only did there need to be invisible mass, it had to be some new kind of particle, like a WIMP. Almost certainly a WIMP. Any other interpretation (like MACHOs) was obviously stupid, as it violated some strong constraint, like Big Bang Nucleosynthesis (BBN). It had to be non-baryonic cold dark matter. HAD. TO. BE. I was sure of this. We were all sure of this.

What gets us in trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

Josh Billings

I realized in the 1990s that the above reasoning was not airtight. Indeed, it has a gaping hole: we were not even considering modifications of dynamical laws (gravity and inertia). That this was a possibility, even a remote one, came as a profound and deep shock to me. It took me ages of struggle to admit it might be possible, during which I worked hard to save the standard picture. I could not. So it pains me to watch the entire community repeat the same struggle, repeat the same failures, and pretend like it is a success. That last step follows from the zeal of religious conviction: the outcome is predetermined. The answer still HAS TO BE dark matter.

So I asked myself – what if we’re wrong? How could we tell? Once one has accepted that the universe is filled with invisible mass that can’t be detected by any craft available known to us, how can we disabuse ourselves of this notion should it happen to be wrong?

One approach that occurred to me was a test in the power spectrum of the cosmic microwave background. Before any of the peaks had been measured, the only clear difference one expected was a bigger second peak with dark matter, and a smaller one without it for the same absolute density of baryons as set by BBN. I’ve written about the lead up to this prediction before, and won’t repeat it here. Rather, I’ll discuss some of the immediate fall out – some of which I’ve only recently pieced together myself.

The first experiment to provide a test of the prediction for the second peak was Boomerang. The second was Maxima-1. I of course checked the new data when they became available. Maxima-1 showed what I expected. So much so that it barely warranted comment. One is only supposed to write a scientific paper when one has something genuinely new to say. This didn’t rise to that level. It was more like checking a tick box. Besides, lots more data were coming; I couldn’t write a new paper every time someone tacked on an extra data point.

There was one difference. The Maxima-1 data had a somewhat higher normalization. The shape of the power spectrum was consistent with that of Boomerang, but the overall amplitude was a bit higher. The latter mattered not at all to my prediction, which was for the relative amplitude of the first to second peaks.

Systematic errors, especially in the amplitude, were likely in early experiments. That’s like rule one of observing the sky. After examining both data sets and the model expectations, I decided the Maxima-1 amplitude was more likely to be correct, so I asked what offset was necessary to reconcile the two. About 14% in temperature. This was, to me, no big deal – it was not relevant to my prediction, and it is exactly the sort of thing one expects to happen in the early days of a new kind of observation. It did seem worth remarking on, if not writing a full blown paper about, so I put it in a conference presentation (McGaugh 2000), which was published in a journal (IJMPA, 16, 1031) as part of the conference proceedings. This correctly anticipated the subsequent recalibration of Boomerang.

The figure from McGaugh (2000) is below. Basically, I said “gee, looks like the Boomerang calibration needs to be adjusted upwards a bit.” This has been done in the figure. The amplitude of the second peak remained consistent with the prediction for a universe devoid of dark matter. In fact, if got better (see Table 4 of McGaugh 2004).

Plot from McGaugh (2000): The predictions of LCDM (left) and no-CDM (right) compared to Maxima-1 data (open points) and Boomerang data (filled points, corrected in normalization). The LCDM model shown is the most favorable prediction that could be made prior to observation of the first two peaks; other then-viable choices of cosmic parameters predicted a higher second peak. The no-CDM got the relative amplitude right a priori, and remains consistent with subsequent data from WMAP and Planck.

This much was trivial. There was nothing new to see, at least as far as the test I had proposed was concerned. New data were pouring in, but there wasn’t really anything worth commenting on until WMAP data appeared several years later, which persisted in corroborating the peak ratio prediction. By this time, the cosmological community had decided that despite persistent corroborations, my prediction was wrong.

That’s right. I got it right, but then right turned into wrong according to the scuttlebutt of cosmic gossip. This was a falsehood, but it took root, and seems to have become one of the things that cosmologists know for sure that just ain’t so.

How did this come to pass? I don’t know. People never asked me. My first inkling was 2003, when it came up in a chance conversation with Marv Leventhal (then chair of Maryland Astronomy), who opined “too bad the data changed on you.” This shocked me. Nothing relevant in the data had changed, yet here was someone asserting that it had like it was common knowledge. Which I suppose it was by then, just not to me.

Over the years, I’ve had the occasional weird conversation on the subject. In retrospect, I think the weirdness stemmed from a divergence of assumed knowledge. They knew I was right then wrong. I knew the second peak prediction had come true and remained true in all subsequent data, but the third peak was a different matter. So there were many opportunities for confusion. In retrospect, I think many of these people were laboring under the mistaken impression that I had been wrong about the second peak.

I now suspect this started with the discrepancy between the calibration of Boomerang and Maxima-1. People seemed to be aware that my prediction was consistent with the Boomerang data. Then they seem to have confused the prediction with those data. So when the data changed – i.e., Maxima-1 was somewhat different in amplitude, then it must follow that the prediction now failed.

This is wrong on many levels. The prediction is independent of the data that test it. It is incredibly sloppy thinking to confuse the two. More importantly, the prediction, as phrased, was not sensitive to this aspect of the data. If one had bothered to measure the ratio in the Maxima-1 data, one would have found a number consistent with the no-CDM prediction. This should be obvious from casual inspection of the figure above. Apparently no one bothered to check. They didn’t even bother to understand the prediction.

Understanding a prediction before dismissing it is not a hard ask. Unless, of course, you already know the answer. Then laziness is not only justified, but the preferred course of action. This sloppy thinking compounds a number of well known cognitive biases (anchoring bias, belief bias, confirmation bias, to name a few).

I mistakenly assumed that other people were seeing the same thing in the data that I saw. It was pretty obvious, after all. (Again, see the figure above.) It did not occur to me back then that other scientists would fail to see the obvious. I fully expected them to complain and try and wriggle out of it, but I could not imagine such complete reality denial.

The reality denial was twofold: clearly, people were looking for any excuse to ignore anything associated with MOND, however indirectly. But they also had no clear prior for LCDM, which I did establish as a point of comparison. A theory is only as good as its prior, and all LCDM models made before these CMB data showed the same thing: a bigger second peak than was observed. This can be fudged: there are ample free parameters, so it can be made to fit; one just had to violate BBN (as it was then known) by three or four sigma.

In retrospect, I think the very first time I had this alternate-reality conversation was at a conference at the University of Chicago in 2001. Andrey Kravtsov had just joined the faculty there, and organized a conference to get things going. He had done some early work on the cusp-core problem, which was still very much a debated thing at the time. So he asked me to come address that topic. I remember being on the plane – a short ride from Cleveland – when I looked at the program. Nearly did a spit take when I saw that I was to give the first talk. There wasn’t a lot of time to organize my transparencies (we still used overhead projectors in those days) but I’d given the talk many times before, so it was enough.

I only talked about the rotation curves of low surface brightness galaxies in the context of the cusp-core problem. That was the mandate. I didn’t talk about MOND or the CMB. There’s only so much you can address in a half hour talk. [This is a recurring problem. No matter what I say, there always seems to be someone who asks “why didn’t you address X?” where X is usually that person’s pet topic. Usually I could do so, but not in the time allotted.]

About halfway through this talk on the cusp-core problem, I guess it became clear that I wasn’t going to talk about things that I hadn’t been asked to talk about, and I was interrupted by Mike Turner, who did want to talk about the CMB. Or rather, extract a confession from me that I had been wrong about it. I forget how he phrased it exactly, but it was the academic equivalent of “Have you stopped beating your wife lately?” Say yes, and you admit to having done so in the past. Say no, and you’re still doing it. What I do clearly remember was him prefacing it with “As a test of your intellectual honesty” as he interrupted to ask a dishonest and intentionally misleading question that was completely off-topic.

Of course, the pretext for his attack question was the Maxima-1 result. He phrased it in a way that I had to agree that those disproved my prediction, or be branded a liar. Now, at the time, there were rumors swirling that the experiment – some of the people who worked on it were there – had detected the third peak, so I thought that was what he was alluding to. Those data had not yet been published and I certainly had not seen them, so I could hardly answer that question. Instead, I answered the “intellectual honesty” affront by pointing to a case where I had said I was wrong. At one point, I thought low surface brightness galaxies might explain the faint blue galaxy problem. On closer examination, it became clear that they could not provide a complete explanation, so I said so. Intellectual honesty is really important to me, and should be to all scientists. I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. But I do have a problem with demands to admit that I’m wrong when I’m not.

To me, it was obvious that the Maxima-1 data were consistent with the second peak. The plot above was already published by then. So it never occurred to me that he thought the Maxima-1 data were in conflict with what I had predicted – it was already known that it was not. Only to him, it was already known that it was. Or so I gather – I have no way to know what others were thinking. But it appears that this was the juncture in which the field suffered a psychotic break. We are not operating on the same set of basic facts. There has been a divergence in personal realities ever since.

Arthur Kosowsky gave the summary talk at the end of the conference. He told me that he wanted to address the elephant in the room: MOND. I did not think the assembled crowd of luminary cosmologists were mature enough for that, so advised against going there. He did, and was incredibly careful in what he said: empirical, factual, posing questions rather than making assertions. Why does MOND work as well as it does?

The room dissolved into chaotic shouting. Every participant was vying to say something wrong more loudly than the person next to him. (Yes, everyone shouting was male.) Joel Primack managed to say something loudly enough for it to stick with me, asserting that gravitational lensing contradicted MOND in a way that I had already shown it did not. It was just one of dozens of superficial falsehoods that people take for granted to be true if they align with one’s confirmation bias.

The uproar settled down, the conference was over, and we started to disperse. I wanted to offer Arthur my condolences, having been in that position many times. Anatoly Klypin was still giving it to him, keeping up a steady stream of invective as everyone else moved on. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and had a plane home to catch. So when I briefly caught Arthur’s eye, I just said “told you” and moved on. Anatoly paused briefly, apparently fathoming that his behavior, like that of the assembled crowd, was entirely predictable. Then the moment of awkward self-awareness passed, and he resumed haranguing Arthur.

Divergence

Divergence

Reality check

Before we can agree on the interpretation of a set of facts, we have to agree on what those facts are. Even if we agree on the facts, we can differ about their interpretation. It is OK to disagree, and anyone who practices astrophysics is going to be wrong from time to time. It is the inevitable risk we take in trying to understand a universe that is vast beyond human comprehension. Heck, some people have made successful careers out of being wrong. This is OK, so long as we recognize and correct our mistakes. That’s a painful process, and there is an urge in human nature to deny such things, to pretend they never happened, or to assert that what was wrong was right all along.

This happens a lot, and it leads to a lot of weirdness. Beyond the many people in the field whom I already know personally, I tend to meet two kinds of scientists. There are those (usually other astronomers and astrophysicists) who might be familiar with my work on low surface brightness galaxies or galaxy evolution or stellar populations or the gas content of galaxies or the oxygen abundances of extragalactic HII regions or the Tully-Fisher relation or the cusp-core problem or faint blue galaxies or big bang nucleosynthesis or high redshift structure formation or joint constraints on cosmological parameters. These people behave like normal human beings. Then there are those (usually particle physicists) who have only heard of me in the context of MOND. These people often do not behave like normal human beings. They conflate me as a person with a theory that is Milgrom’s. They seem to believe that both are evil and must be destroyed. My presence, even the mere mention of my name, easily destabilizes their surprisingly fragile grasp on sanity.

One of the things that scientists-gone-crazy do is project their insecurities about the dark matter paradigm onto me. People who barely know me frequently attribute to me motivations that I neither have nor recognize. They presume that I have some anti-cosmology, anti-DM, pro-MOND agenda, and are remarkably comfortably about asserting to me what it is that I believe. What they never explain, or apparently bother to consider, is why I would be so obtuse? What is my motivation? I certainly don’t enjoy having the same argument over and over again with their ilk, which is the only thing it seems to get me.

The only agenda I have is a pro-science agenda. I want to know how the universe works.

This agenda is not theory-specific. In addition to lots of other astrophysics, I have worked on both dark matter and MOND. I will continue to work on both until we have a better understanding of how the universe works. Right now we’re very far away from obtaining that goal. Anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves – usually by dint of ignoring inconvenient aspects of the evidence. Everyone is susceptible to cognitive dissonance. Scientists are no exception – I struggle with it all the time. What disturbs me is the number of scientists who apparently do not. The field is being overrun with posers who lack the self-awareness to question their own assumptions and biases.

So, I feel like I’m repeating myself here, but let me state my bias. Oh wait. I already did. That’s why it felt like repetition. It is.

The following bit of this post is adapted from an old web page I wrote well over a decade ago. I’ve lost track of exactly when – the file has been through many changes in computer systems, and unix only records the last edit date. For the linked page, that’s 2016, when I added a few comments. The original is much older, and was written while I was at the University of Maryland. Judging from the html style, it was probably early to mid-’00s. Of course, the sentiment is much older, as it shouldn’t need to be said at all.

I will make a few updates as seem appropriate, so check the link if you want to see the changes. I will add new material at the end.


Long standing remarks on intellectual honesty

The debate about MOND often degenerates into something that falls well short of the sober, objective discussion that is suppose to characterize scientific debates. One can tell when voices are raised and baseless ad hominem accusations made. I have, with disturbing frequency, found myself accused of partisanship and intellectual dishonesty, usually by people who are as fair and balanced as Fox News.

Let me state with absolute clarity that intellectual honesty is a bedrock principle of mine. My attitude is summed up well by the quote

When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.

Paul Gerhardt

I first heard this spoken by the character Merlin in the movie Excalibur (1981 version). Others may have heard it in a song by Metallica. As best I can tell, it is originally attributable to the 17th century cleric Paul Gerhardt.

This is a great quote for science, as the intent is clear. We don’t get to pick and choose our facts. Outright lying about them is antithetical to science.

I would extend this to ignoring facts. One should not only be honest, but also as complete as possible. It does not suffice to be truthful while leaving unpleasant or unpopular facts unsaid. This is lying by omission.

I “grew up” believing in dark matter. Specifically, Cold Dark Matter, presumably a WIMP. I didn’t think MOND was wrong so much as I didn’t think about it at all. Barely heard of it; not worth the bother. So I was shocked – and angered – when it its predictions came true in my data for low surface brightness galaxies. So I understand when my colleagues have the same reaction.

Nevertheless, Milgrom got the prediction right. I had a prediction, it was wrong. There were other conventional predictions, they were also wrong. Indeed, dark matter based theories generically have a very hard time explaining these data. In a Bayesian sense, given the prior that we live in a ΛCDM universe, the probability that MONDian phenomenology would be observed is practically zero. Yet it is. (This is very well established, and has been for some time.)

So – confronted with an unpopular theory that nevertheless had some important predictions come true, I reported that fact. I could have ignored it, pretended it didn’t happen, covered my eyes and shouted LA LA LA NOT LISTENING. With the benefit of hindsight, that certainly would have been the savvy career move. But it would also be ignoring a fact, and tantamount to a lie.

In short, though it was painful and protracted, I changed my mind. Isn’t that what the scientific method says we’re suppose to do when confronted with experimental evidence?

That was my experience. When confronted with evidence that contradicted my preexisting world view, I was deeply troubled. I tried to reject it. I did an enormous amount of fact-checking. The people who presume I must be wrong have not had this experience, and haven’t bothered to do any fact-checking. Why bother when you already are sure of the answer?


Willful Ignorance

I understand being skeptical about MOND. I understand being more comfortable with dark matter. That’s where I started from myself, so as I said above, I can empathize with people who come to the problem this way. This is a perfectly reasonable place to start.

For me, that was over a quarter century ago. I can understand there being some time lag. That is not what is going on. There has been ample time to process and assimilate this information. Instead, most physicists have chosen to remain ignorant. Worse, many persist in spreading what can only be described as misinformation. I don’t think they are liars; rather, it seems that they believe their own bullshit.

To give an example of disinformation, I still hear said things like “MOND fits rotation curves but nothing else.” This is not true. The first thing I did was check into exactly that. Years of fact-checking went into McGaugh & de Blok (1998), and I’ve done plenty more since. It came as a great surprise to me that MOND explained the vast majority of the data as well or better than dark matter. Not everything, to be sure, but lots more than “just” rotation curves. Yet this old falsehood still gets repeated as if it were not a misconception that was put to rest in the previous century. We’re stuck in the dark ages by choice.

It is not a defensible choice. There is no excuse to remain ignorant of MOND at this juncture in the progress of astrophysics. It is incredibly biased to point to its failings without contending with its many predictive successes. It is tragi-comically absurd to assume that dark matter provides a better explanation when it cannot make the same predictions in advance. MOND may not be correct in every particular, and makes no pretense to be a complete theory of everything. But it is demonstrably less wrong than dark matter when it comes to predicting the dynamics of systems in the low acceleration regime. Pretending like this means nothing is tantamount to ignoring essential facts.

Even a lie of omission murders a part of the world.

25 years a heretic

25 years a heretic

People seem to like to do retrospectives at year’s end. I take a longer view, but the end of 2020 seems like a fitting time to do that. Below is the text of a paper I wrote in 1995 with collaborators at the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen. The last edit date is from December of that year, so this text (in plain TeX, not LaTeX!) is now a quarter century old. I am just going to cut & paste it as-was; I even managed to recover the original figures and translate them into something web-friendly (postscript to jpeg). This is exactly how it was.

This was my first attempt to express in the scientific literature my concerns for the viability of the dark matter paradigm, and my puzzlement that the only theory to get any genuine predictions right was MOND. It was the hardest admission in my career that this could be even a remote possibility. Nevertheless, intellectual honesty demanded that I report it. To fail to do so would be an act of reality denial antithetical to the foundational principles of science.

It was never published. There were three referees. Initially, one was positive, one was negative, and one insisted that rotation curves weren’t flat. There was one iteration; this is the resubmitted version in which the concerns of the second referee were addressed to his apparent satisfaction by making the third figure a lot more complicated. The third referee persisted that none of this was valid because rotation curves weren’t flat. Seems like he had a problem with something beyond the scope of this paper, but the net result was rejection.

One valid concern that ran through the refereeing process from all sides was “what about everything else?” This is a good question that couldn’t fit into a short letter like this. Thanks to the support of Vera Rubin and a Carnegie Fellowship, I spent the next couple of years looking into everything else. The results were published in 1998 in a series of three long papers: one on dark matter, one on MOND, and one making detailed fits.

This had started from a very different place intellectually with my efforts to write a paper on galaxy formation that would have been similar to contemporaneous papers like Dalcanton, Spergel, & Summers and Mo, Mao, & White. This would have followed from my thesis and from work with Houjun Mo, who was an office mate when we were postdocs at the IoA in Cambridge. (The ideas discussed in Mo, McGaugh, & Bothun have been reborn recently in the galaxy formation literature under the moniker of “assembly bias.”) But I had realized by then that my ideas – and those in the papers cited – were wrong. So I didn’t write a paper that I knew to be wrong. I wrote this one instead.

Nothing substantive has changed since. Reading it afresh, I’m amazed how many of the arguments over the past quarter century were anticipated here. As a scientific community, we are stuck in a rut, and seem to prefer to spin the wheels to dig ourselves in deeper than consider the plain if difficult path out.


Testing hypotheses of dark matter and alternative gravity with low surface density galaxies

The missing mass problem remains one of the most vexing in astrophysics. Observations clearly indicate either the presence of a tremendous amount of as yet unidentified dark matter1,2, or the need to modify the law of gravity3-7. These hypotheses make vastly different predictions as a function of density. Observations of the rotation curves of galaxies of much lower surface brightness than previously studied therefore provide a powerful test for discriminating between them. The dark matter hypothesis requires a surprisingly strong relation between the surface brightness and mass to light ratio8, placing stringent constraints on theories of galaxy formation and evolution. Alternatively, the observed behaviour is predicted4 by one of the hypothesised alterations of gravity known as modified Newtonian dynamics3,5 (MOND).

Spiral galaxies are observed to have asymptotically flat [i.e., V(R) ~ constant for large R] rotation curves that extend well beyond their optical edges. This trend continues for as far (many, sometimes > 10 galaxy scale lengths) as can be probed by gaseous tracers1,2 or by the orbits of satellite galaxies9. Outside a galaxy’s optical radius, the gravitational acceleration is aN = GM/R2 = V2/R so one expects V(R) ~ R-1/2. This Keplerian behaviour is not observed in galaxies.

One approach to this problem is to increase M in the outer parts of galaxies in order to provide the extra gravitational acceleration necessary to keep the rotation curves flat. Indeed, this is the only option within the framework of Newtonian gravity since both V and R are directly measured. The additional mass must be invisible, dominant, and extend well beyond the optical edge of the galaxies.

Postulating the existence of this large amount of dark matter which reveals itself only by its gravitational effects is a radical hypothesis. Yet the kinematic data force it upon us, so much so that the existence of dark matter is generally accepted. Enormous effort has gone into attempting to theoretically predict its nature and experimentally verify its existence, but to date there exists no convincing detection of any hypothesised dark matter candidate, and many plausible candidates have been ruled out10.

Another possible solution is to alter the fundamental equation aN = GM/R2. Our faith in this simple equation is very well founded on extensive experimental tests of Newtonian gravity. Since it is so fundamental, altering it is an even more radical hypothesis than invoking the existence of large amounts of dark matter of completely unknown constituent components. However, a radical solution is required either way, so both possibilities must be considered and tested.

A phenomenological theory specifically introduced to address the problem of the flat rotation curves is MOND3. It has no other motivation and so far there is no firm physical basis for the theory. It provides no satisfactory cosmology, having yet to be reconciled with General Relativity. However, with the introduction of one new fundamental constant (an acceleration a0), it is empirically quite successful in fitting galaxy rotation curves11-14. It hypothesises that for accelerations a < a0 = 1.2 x 10-10 m s-2, the effective acceleration is given by aeff = (aN a0)1/2. This simple prescription works well with essentially only one free parameter per galaxy, the stellar mass to light ratio, which is subject to independent constraint by stellar evolution theory. More importantly, MOND makes predictions which are distinct and testable. One specific prediction4 is that the asymptotic (flat) value of the rotation velocity, Va, is Va = (GMa0)1/4. Note that Va does not depend on R, but only on M in the regime of small accelerations (a < a0).

In contrast, Newtonian gravity depends on both M and R. Replacing R with a mass surface density variable S = M(R)/R2, the Newtonian prediction becomes M S ~ Va4 which contrasts with the MOND prediction M ~ Va4. These relations are the theoretical basis in each case for the observed luminosity-linewidth relation L ~ Va4 (better known as the Tully-Fisher15 relation. Note that the observed value of the exponent is bandpass dependent, but does obtain the theoretical value of 4 in the near infrared16 which is considered the best indicator of the stellar mass. The systematic variation with bandpass is a very small effect compared to the difference between the two gravitational theories, and must be attributed to dust or stars under either theory.) To transform from theory to observation one requires the mass to light ratio Y: Y = M/L = S/s, where s is the surface brightness. Note that in the purely Newtonian case, M and L are very different functions of R, so Y is itself a strong function of R. We define Y to be the mass to light ratio within the optical radius R*, as this is the only radius which can be measured by observation. The global mass to light ratio would be very different (since M ~ R for R > R*, the total masses of dark haloes are not measurable), but the particular choice of definition does not affect the relevant functional dependences is all that matters. The predictions become Y2sL ~ Va4 for Newtonian gravity8,16 and YL ~ Va4 for MOND4.

The only sensible17 null hypothesis that can be constructed is that the mass to light ratio be roughly constant from galaxy to galaxy. Clearly distinct predictions thus emerge if galaxies of different surface brightnesses s are examined. In the Newtonian case there should be a family of parallel Tully-Fisher relations for each surface brightness. In the case of MOND, all galaxies should follow the same Tully-Fisher relation irrespective of surface brightness.

Recently it has been shown that extreme objects such as low surface brightness galaxies8,18 (those with central surface brightnesses fainter than s0 = 23 B mag./[] corresponding 40 L pc-2) obey the same Tully-Fisher relation as do the high surface brightness galaxies (typically with s0 = 21.65 B mag./[] or 140 L pc-2) which originally15 defined it. Fig. 1 shows the luminosity-linewidth plane for galaxies ranging over a factor of 40 in surface brightness. Regardless of surface brightness, galaxies fall on the same Tully-Fisher relation.

The luminosity-linewidth (Tully-Fisher) relation for spiral galaxies over a large range in surface brightness. The B-band relation is shown; the same result is obtained in all bands8,18. Absolute magnitudes are measured from apparent magnitudes assuming H0 = 75 km/s/Mpc. Rotation velocities Va are directly proportional to observed 21 cm linewidths (measured as the full width at 20% of maximum) W20 corrected for inclination [sin-1(i)]. Open symbols are an independent sample which defines42 the Tully-Fisher relation (solid line). The dotted lines show the expected shift of the Tully-Fisher relation for each step in surface brightness away from the canonical value s0 = 21.5 if the mass to light ratio remains constant. Low surface brightness galaxies are plotted as solid symbols, binned by surface brightness: red triangles: 22 < s0 < 23; green squares: 23 < s0 < 24; blue circles: s0 > 24. One galaxy with two independent measurements is connected by a line. This gives an indication of the typical uncertainty which is sufficient to explain nearly all the scatter. Contrary to the clear expectation of a readily detectable shift as indicated by the dotted lines, galaxies fall on the same Tully-Fisher relation regardless of surface brightness, as predicted by MOND.

MOND predicts this behaviour in spite of the very different surface densities of low surface brightness galaxies. In order to understand this observational fact in the framework of standard Newtonian gravity requires a subtle relation8 between surface brightness and the mass to light ratio to keep the product sY2 constant. If we retain normal gravity and the dark matter hypothesis, this result is unavoidable, and the null hypothesis of similar mass to light ratios (which, together with an assumed constancy of surface brightness, is usually invoked to explain the Tully-Fisher relation) is strongly rejected. Instead, the current epoch surface brightness is tightly correlated with the properties of the dark matter halo, placing strict constraints on models of galaxy formation and evolution.

The mass to light ratios computed for both cases are shown as a function of surface brightness in Fig. 2. Fig. 2 is based solely on galaxies with full rotation curves19,20 and surface photometry, so Va and R* are directly measured. The correlation in the Newtonian case is very clear (Fig. 2a), confirming our inference8 from the Tully-Fisher relation. Such tight correlations are very rare in extragalactic astronomy, and the Y-s relation is probably the real cause of an inferred Y-L relation. The latter is much weaker because surface brightness and luminosity are only weakly correlated21-24.

The mass to light ratio Y (in M/L) determined with (a) Newtonian dynamics and (b) MOND, plotted as a function of central surface brightness. The mass determination for Newtonian dynamics is M = V2 R*/G and for MOND is M = V4/(G a0). We have adopted as a consistent definition of the optical radius R* four scale lengths of the exponential optical disc. This is where discs tend to have edges, and contains essentially all the light21,22. The definition of R* makes a tremendous difference to the absolute value of the mass to light ratio in the Newtonian case, but makes no difference at all to the functional relation will be present regardless of the precise definition. These mass measurements are more sensitive to the inclination corrections than is the Tully-Fisher relation since there is a sin-2(i) term in the Newtonian case and one of sin-4(i) for MOND. It is thus very important that the inclination be accurately measured, and we have retained only galaxies which have adequate inclination determinations — error bars are plotted for a nominal uncertainty of 6 degrees. The sensitivity to inclination manifests itself as an increase in the scatter from (a) to (b). The derived mass is also very sensitive to the measured value of the asymptotic velocity itself, so we have used only those galaxies for which this can be taken directly from a full rotation curve19,20,42. We do not employ profile widths; the velocity measurements here are independent of those in Fig. 1. In both cases, we have subtracted off the known atomic gas mass19,20,42, so what remains is essentially only the stars and any dark matter that may exist. A very strong correlation (regression coefficient = 0.85) is apparent in (a): this is the mass to light ratio — surface brightness conspiracy. The slope is consistent (within the errors) with the theoretical expectation s ~ Y-2 derived from the Tully-Fisher relation8. At the highest surface brightnesses, the mass to light ratio is similar to that expected for the stellar population. At the faintest surface brightnesses, it has increased by a factor of nearly ten, indicating increasing dark matter domination within the optical disc as surface brightness decreases or a very systematic change in the stellar population, or both. In (b), the mass to light ratio scatters about a constant value of 2. This mean value, and the lack of a trend, is what is expected for stellar populations17,21-24.

The Y-s relation is not predicted by any dark matter theory25,26. It can not be purely an effect of the stellar mass to light ratio, since no other stellar population indicator such as color21-24 or metallicity27,28 is so tightly correlated with surface brightness. In principle it could be an effect of the stellar mass fraction, as the gas mass to light ratio follows a relation very similar to that of total mass to light ratio20. We correct for this in Fig. 2 by subtracting the known atomic gas mass so that Y refers only to the stars and any dark matter. We do not correct for molecular gas, as this has never been detected in low surface brightness galaxies to rather sensitive limits30 so the total mass of such gas is unimportant if current estimates31 of the variation of the CO to H2 conversion factor with metallicity are correct. These corrections have no discernible effect at all in Fig. 2 because the dark mass is totally dominant. It is thus very hard to see how any evolutionary effect in the luminous matter can be relevant.

In the case of MOND, the mass to light ratio directly reflects that of the stellar population once the correction for gas mass fraction is made. There is no trend of Y* with surface brightness (Fig. 2b), a more natural result and one which is consistent with our studies of the stellar populations of low surface brightness galaxies21-23. These suggest that Y* should be roughly constant or slightly declining as surface brightness decreases, with much scatter. The mean value Y* = 2 is also expected from stellar evolutionary theory17, which always gives a number 0 < Y* < 10 and usually gives 0.5 < Y* < 3 for disk galaxies. This is particularly striking since Y* is the only free parameter allowed to MOND, and the observed mean is very close to that directly observed29 in the Milky Way (1.7 ± 0.5 M/L).

The essence of the problem is illustrated by Fig. 3, which shows the rotation curves of two galaxies of essentially the same luminosity but vastly different surface brightnesses. Though the asymptotic velocities are the same (as required by the Tully-Fisher relation), the rotation curve of the low surface brightness galaxy rises less quickly than that of the high surface brightness galaxy as expected if the mass is distributed like the light. Indeed, the ratio of surface brightnesses is correct to explain the ratio of velocities at small radii if both galaxies have similar mass to light ratios. However, if this continues to be the case as R increases, the low surface brightness galaxy should reach a lower asymptotic velocity simply because R* must be larger for the same L. That this does not occur is the problem, and poses very significant systematic constraints on the dark matter distribution.

The rotation curves of two galaxies, one of high surface brightness11 (NGC 2403; open circles) and one of low surface brightness19 (UGC 128; filled circles). The two galaxies have very nearly the same asymptotic velocity, and hence luminosity, as required by the Tully-Fisher relation. However, they have central surface brightnesses which differ by a factor of 13. The lines give the contributions to the rotation curves of the various components. Green: luminous disk. Blue: dark matter halo. Red: luminous disk (stars and gas) with MOND. Solid lines refer to NGC 2403 and dotted lines to UGC 128. The fits for NGC 2403 are taken from ref. 11, for which the stars have Y* = 1.5 M/L. For UGC 128, no specific fit is made: the blue and green dotted lines are simply the NGC 2403 fits scaled by the ratio of disk scale lengths h. This provides a remarkably good description of the UGC 128 rotation curve and illustrates one possible manifestation of the fine tuning problem: if disks have similar Y, the halo parameters p0 and R0 must scale with the disk parameters s0 and h while conspiring to keep the product p0 R02 fixed at any given luminosity. Note also that the halo of NGC 2403 gives an adequate fit to the rotation curve of UGC 128. This is another possible manifestation of the fine tuning problem: all galaxies of the same luminosity have the same halo, with Y systematically varying with s0 so that Y* goes to zero as s0 goes to zero. Neither of these is exactly correct because the contribution of the gas can not be set to zero as is mathematically possible with the stars. This causes the resulting fin tuning problems to be even more complex, involving more parameters. Alternatively, the green dotted line is the rotation curve expected by MOND for a galaxy with the observed luminous mass distribution of UGC 128.

Satisfying the Tully-Fisher relation has led to some expectation that haloes all have the same density structure. This simplest possibility is immediately ruled out. In order to obtain L ~ Va4 ~ MS, one might suppose that the mass surface density S is constant from galaxy to galaxy, irrespective of the luminous surface density s. This achieves the correct asymptotic velocity Va, but requires that the mass distribution, and hence the complete rotation curve, be essentially identical for all galaxies of the same luminosity. This is obviously not the case (Fig. 3), as the rotation curves of lower surface brightness galaxies rise much more gradually than those of higher surface brightness galaxies (also a prediction4 of MOND). It might be possible to have approximately constant density haloes if the highest surface brightness disks are maximal and the lowest minimal in their contribution to the inner parts of the rotation curves, but this then requires fine tuning of Y* with this systematically decreasing with surface brightness.

The expected form of the halo mass distribution depends on the dominant form of dark matter. This could exist in three general categories: baryonic (e.g., MACHOs), hot (e.g., neutrinos), and cold exotic particles (e.g., WIMPs). The first two make no specific predictions. Baryonic dark matter candidates are most subject to direct detection, and most plausible candidates have been ruled out10 with remaining suggestions of necessity sounding increasingly contrived32. Hot dark matter is not relevant to the present problem. Even if neutrinos have a small mass, their velocities considerably exceed the escape velocities of the haloes of low mass galaxies where the problem is most severe. Cosmological simulations involving exotic cold dark matter33,34 have advanced to the point where predictions are being made about the density structure of haloes. These take the form33,34 p(R) = pH/[R(R+RH)b] where pH characterises the halo density and RH its radius, with b ~ 2 to 3. The characteristic density depends on the mean density of the universe at the collapse epoch, and is generally expected to be greater for lower mass galaxies since these collapse first in such scenarios. This goes in the opposite sense of the observations, which show that low mass and low surface brightness galaxies are less, not more, dense. The observed behaviour is actually expected in scenarios which do not smooth on a particular mass scale and hence allow galaxies of the same mass to collapse at a variety of epochs25, but in this case the Tully-Fisher relation should not be universal. Worse, note that at small R < RH, p(R) ~ R-1. It has already been noted32,35 that such a steep interior density distribution is completely inconsistent with the few (4) analysed observations of dwarf galaxies. Our data19,20 confirm and considerably extend this conclusion for 24 low surface brightness galaxies over a wide range in luminosity.

The failure of the predicted exotic cold dark matter density distribution either rules out this form of dark matter, indicates some failing in the simulations (in spite of wide-spread consensus), or requires some mechanism to redistribute the mass. Feedback from star formation is usually invoked for the last of these, but this can not work for two reasons. First, an objection in principle: a small mass of stars and gas must have a dramatic impact on the distribution of the dominant dark mass, with which they can only interact gravitationally. More mass redistribution is required in less luminous galaxies since they start out denser but end up more diffuse; of course progressively less baryonic material is available to bring this about as luminosity declines. Second, an empirical objection: in this scenario, galaxies explode and gas is lost. However, progressively fainter and lower surface brightness galaxies, which need to suffer more severe explosions, are actually very gas rich.

Observationally, dark matter haloes are inferred to have density distributions1,2,11 with constant density cores, p(R) = p0/[1 + (R/R0)g]. Here, p0 is the core density and R0 is the core size with g ~ 2 being required to produce flat rotation curves. For g = 2, the rotation curve resulting from this mass distribution is V(R) = Va [1-(R0/R) tan-1({R/R0)]1/2 where the asymptotic velocity is Va = (4πG p0 R02)1/2. To satisfy the Tully-Fisher relation, Va, and hence the product p0 R02, must be the same for all galaxies of the same luminosity. To decrease the rate of rise of the rotation curves as surface brightness decreases, R0 must increase. Together, these two require a fine tuning conspiracy to keep the product p0 R02 constant while R0 must vary with the surface brightness at a given luminosity. Luminosity and surface brightness themselves are only weakly correlated, so there exists a wide range in one parameter at any fixed value of the other. Thus the structural properties of the invisible dark matter halo dictate those of the luminous disk, or vice versa. So, s and L give the essential information about the mass distribution without recourse to kinematic information.

A strict s-p0-R0 relation is rigorously obeyed only if the haloes are spherical and dominate throughout. This is probably a good approximation for low surface brightness galaxies but may not be for the those of the highest surface brightness. However, a significant non-halo contribution can at best replace one fine tuning problem with another (e.g., surface brightness being strongly correlated with the stellar population mass to light ratio instead of halo core density) and generally causes additional conspiracies.

There are two perspectives for interpreting these relations, with the preferred perspective depending strongly on the philosophical attitude one has towards empirical and theoretical knowledge. One view is that these are real relations which galaxies and their haloes obey. As such, they provide a positive link between models of galaxy formation and evolution and reality.

The other view is that this list of fine tuning requirements makes it rather unattractive to maintain the dark matter hypothesis. MOND provides an empirically more natural explanation for these observations. In addition to the Tully-Fisher relation, MOND correctly predicts the systematics of the shapes of the rotation curves of low surface brightness galaxies19,20 and fits the specific case of UGC 128 (Fig. 3). Low surface brightness galaxies were stipulated4 to be a stringent test of the theory because they should be well into the regime a < a0. This is now observed to be true, and to the limit of observational accuracy the predictions of MOND are confirmed. The critical acceleration scale a0 is apparently universal, so there is a single force law acting in galactic disks for which MOND provides the correct description. The cause of this could be either a particular dark matter distribution36 or a real modification of gravity. The former is difficult to arrange, and a single force law strongly supports the latter hypothesis since in principle the dark matter could have any number of distributions which would give rise to a variety of effective force laws. Even if MOND is not correct, it is essential to understand why it so closely describe the observations. Though the data can not exclude Newtonian dynamics, with a working empirical alternative (really an extension) at hand, we would not hesitate to reject as incomplete any less venerable hypothesis.

Nevertheless, MOND itself remains incomplete as a theory, being more of a Kepler’s Law for galaxies. It provides only an empirical description of kinematic data. While successful for disk galaxies, it was thought to fail in clusters of galaxies37. Recently it has been recognized that there exist two missing mass problems in galaxy clusters, one of which is now solved38: most of the luminous matter is in X-ray gas, not galaxies. This vastly improves the consistency of MOND with with cluster dynamics39. The problem with the theory remains a reconciliation with Relativity and thereby standard cosmology (which is itself in considerable difficulty38,40), and a lack of any prediction about gravitational lensing41. These are theoretical problems which need to be more widely addressed in light of MOND’s empirical success.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. We thank R. Sanders and M. Milgrom for clarifying aspects of a theory with which we were previously unfamiliar. SSM is grateful to the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute for enormous hospitality during visits when much of this work was done. [Note added in 2020: this work was supported by a cooperative grant funded by the EU and would no longer be possible thanks to Brexit.]

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Oh… you don’t want to look in there

Oh… you don’t want to look in there

This post is a recent conversation with David Garofalo for his blog.


Today we talk to Dr. Stacy McGaugh, Chair of the Astronomy Department at Case Western Reserve University.

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 head of it only on a couple of occasions, but I hadn’t payed 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 out 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 questions 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.

Cosmology, then and now

Cosmology, then and now

I have been busy teaching cosmology this semester. When I started on the faculty of the University of Maryland in 1998, there was no advanced course on the subject. This seemed like an obvious hole to fill, so I developed one. I remember with fond bemusement the senior faculty, many of them planetary scientists, sending Mike A’Hearn as a stately ambassador to politely inquire if cosmology had evolved beyond a dodgy subject and was now rigorous enough to be worthy of a 3 credit graduate course.

Back then, we used transparencies or wrote on the board. It was novel to have a course web page. I still have those notes, and marvel at the breadth and depth of work performed by my younger self. Now that I’m teaching it for the first time in a decade, I find it challenging to keep up. Everything has to be adapted to an electronic format, and be delivered remotely during this damnable pandemic. It is a less satisfactory experience, and it has precluded posting much here.

Another thing I notice is that attitudes have evolved along with the subject. The baseline cosmology, LCDM, has not changed much. We’ve tilted the power spectrum and spiked it with extra baryons, but the basic picture is that which emerged from the application of classical observational cosmology – measurements of the Hubble constant, the mass density, the ages of the oldest stars, the abundances of the light elements, number counts of faint galaxies, and a wealth of other observational constraints built up over decades of effort. Here is an example of combining such constraints, and exercise I have students do every time I teach the course:

Observational constraints in the mass density-Hubble constant plane assembled by students in my cosmology course in 2002. The gray area is excluded. The open window is the only space allowed; this is LCDM. The box represents the first WMAP estimate in 2003. CMB estimates have subsequently migrated out of the allowed region to lower H0 and higher mass density, but the other constraints have not changed much, most famously H0, which remains entrenched in the low to mid-70s.

These things were known by the mid-90s. Nowadays, people seem to think Type Ia SN discovered Lambda, when really they were just icing on a cake that was already baked. The location of the first peak in the acoustic power spectrum of the microwave background was corroborative of the flat geometry required by the picture that had developed, but trailed the development of LCDM rather than informing its construction. But students entering the field now seem to have been given the impression that these were the only observations that mattered.

Worse, they seem to think these things are Known, as if there’s never been a time that we cosmologists have been sure about something only to find later that we had it quite wrong. This attitude is deleterious to the progress of science, as it precludes us from seeing important clues when they fail to conform to our preconceptions. To give one recent example, everyone seems to have decided that the EDGES observation of 21 cm absorption during the dark ages is wrong. The reason? Because it is impossible in LCDM. There are technical reasons why it might be wrong, but these are subsidiary to Attitude: we can’t believe it’s true, so we don’t. But that’s what makes a result important: something that makes us reexamine how we perceive the universe. If we’re unwilling to do that, we’re no longer doing science.

The Other

The Other

I am a white American male. As such, I realize that there is no way for me to grasp and viscerally appreciate all the ways in which racism afflicts black Americans. Or, for that matter, all the ways in which sexism afflicts women. But I can acknowledge that these things exist. I can recognize when it happens. I’ve seen it happen to others, both friends and strangers. I can try not to be part of the problem.

It isn’t just black and white or male and female. There are so many other ways in which we classify and mistreat each other. Black Americans were enslaved; Native Americans were largely eradicated. It is easy to think of still more examples – religious heretics, colonized peoples, members of the LGBT community – anything that sets one apart as the Other. Being the Other makes one less than human and more akin to vermin that should be controlled or exterminated: clearly the attitude taken by Nazis towards Jews in occupied Europe.

When I was a child, my family moved around a lot. [It doesn’t matter why; there was no good reason.] We moved every other year. I was born in Oklahoma, but my only memory of it is from visiting relatives later: we moved to central Illinois when I was still a baby. We lived in a series of small towns – Decatur, Sullivan, made a brief detour to Escondido, California, then back to Shelbyville. My earliest memories are of the rich smell of the fertile Illinois landscape coming to life in springtime as my consciousness dawned in a beautiful wooded landscape about which I was infinitely curious. The shady forests and little creeks were as much my classrooms as the brick schoolhouses inhabited by teachers, friends, and bullies.

I was painfully, cripplingly shy as a child. It took a year to start to make new friends, and another to establish them. Then we would move away.

Bullies came more quickly than friends. Every bully wants to pick on others, but especially if they are different – the Other. I was different in so many ways. I was from somewhere else, an alien immigrant to each parochial little town. I was small for my age and young for my grade, having skipped first grade. I was an egghead, a nerd in a time where the only thing society seemed to value was size and strength. Worst of all, I did not attend the same little church that they did, so I was going to hell, and many  illiterate bible-thumping bullies seemed to take it as their religious duty to speed me on my way.

When I was 13, we moved to Flint, Michigan. We went from a tiny farm town to an urban industrial area the epitomizes “rust belt.” I could no longer see the stars at night because the sky was pink – a lurid, poisonous pink – from the lights of the nearby AC Spark Plugs factory (then an active facility in which I briefly worked; now a vast empty slab of concrete). I still wandered in the limited little woods wedged between the freeway and a golf course, but the creek there ran thick with the sheen of petrochemical runoff.

I became a part of the 1970s effort at desegregation. The white religious bigot bullies were replaced with black ghetto bullies. Some seemed to think it to be their duty to return the shit white people had given them by being shitty to white people whenever they could. I didn’t really get that at the time. To me, they were just bullies. Same old, same old. Their hatred for the Other was palpably the same.

But you know what? Most people aren’t bullies. Bullies are just the first in line to greet Others onto whom they hope to unload their own self-loathing. Given time, I met better people in each and every place I lived. And what I found, over and over again, is that people are people. There are craven, nasty people and their are extraordinary, wonderful people, and everything else you can imagine in between. I’ve lived in all-white neighborhoods and mostly black neighborhoods and pretty well integrated neighborhoods. I’ve seen differences in culture but zero evidence that one race is better or worse or even meaningfully different from the other. Both have a tendency to mistrust the Other that seems deeply ingrained in human nature. We aren’t quite human to each other until we’re personally known. Once you meet the Other, they cease to be the Other and become an individual with a name and a personality. I suspect that’s what people mean when they claim not to see color – it’s not that they cease to see it, but for the people they’ve actually met, it ceases to be their defining characteristic.

And yet we persist in making implicitly racist assumptions. To give just one tiny example, a few years back a friend was helping to organize the Larchmere Porch Fest, and asked my wife and I to help. This is a wonderful event in which people in the Larchmere neighborhood offer their porches as stages for musical performances. One can wander up and down and hear all manner of music. On this occasion, I wound up helping to set up one porch for a performance by Obnox. I realized that some electricity would be needed, so knocked on the homeowner’s door. A woman appeared, and after a brief discussion, she provided an extension cord with a pink, Barbie-themed power strip that we threaded through an open window. Lamont Thomas and his drummer arrived, and set up went fairly smoothly, but he thought of something else, so also knocked on the door. I don’t remember what he was looking for, but I remember the reaction of the woman upon opening the door. Lamont is a tall, imposing black man. Her eyes got as big as saucers. She closed the door without a word. We heard the -snick- of the lock and her retreating footsteps. Lamont looked at the door that had been shut in his face, then looked at me and spoke softly: “My lyrics are kinda… raw. Is that going to be a problem?” I could only shrug. “She signed up for this,” I replied.

I don’t know what went through her mind. I would guess that like a lot of white people in the U.S., she had conveniently forgotten that black people exist – or at least, weren’t a presence in her regular circle of life. So when she chose to participate in a positive civic activity, in this case porch fest, it simply hadn’t occurred to her that black people might be involved. Who would have guessed that some musicians might be black!

That episode is but one tiny example of the pervasive, reflexive fear of the Other that still pervades American culture. More generally, I marvel at the human potential that we must have wasted in this way. The persecution of minorities, both ethnic and religious, the suppression of novel thought outside the mainstream, the utter disregard for women in far too many societies… For every Newton, for every Einstein, for every brilliant person who became famous for making a positive impact on the world, how many comparably brilliant people found themselves in circumstances that prevented them from making the contributions that they might otherwise have made? Einstein happened to be visiting the U.S. when Hitler came to power, and wisely declined to return home to Germany. He was already famous, so it was possible to financially arrange to keep him on. How might it have gone if the timing were otherwise? How many were less fortunate? What have we lost? Why do we continue to throw away so much human potential?

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Obnox performs at the Larchmere Porch Fest in 2014.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

I started this blog as a place to discuss science, and have refrained from discussing overtly political matters. This is no longer possible. Today is June 10, 2020 – the date set to strike for black lives. I want to contribute in a tiny way by writing here. If that seems inappropriate to you or otherwise makes you uncomfortable, then that probably means that you need to read it and reflect on the reasons for your discomfort.

To start, I quote the statement made by my colleagues and myself:

The CWRU Department of Astronomy stands in solidarity with our Black colleagues and fellow citizens across the United States in expressing what should be a clear moral absolute: that people of color should enjoy the same freedoms as other Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We condemn the de facto system of racial oppression that leads to pervasive police brutality up to and including the extrajudicial murders of Black Americans like George Floyd and far too many others.

We strive to build an academic community that welcomes, encourages, and supports students and scientists of color. To achieve this goal, we recognize that we must continually reflect on the injustices faced by under-represented and marginalized people, and repair the institutional structures that place them at a disadvantage. We encourage our colleagues in astronomy, throughout academia, and more broadly across society to do the same.

We will participate in the Strike for Black Lives this Wednesday, June 10, and encourage others to join us.

As the current chairperson of the CWRU Department of Astronomy, I was initially reluctant to post something about the Black Lives Matter movement on the department website. It is a different thing to make a statement on behalf of an organization of many people than it is to do so for oneself. Moreover, we are a science entity, not a political one. But we are also people, and cannot separate our humanity from our vocation. There comes a point when way too much is ever so much more than more than enough. We have reached such a point. So when I contacted my colleagues about doing this, there was unanimous agreement and eager consent to do so among all the faculty and scientific staff.

I value the freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment of the constitution of the United States of America. I think it is worth reproducing here:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of speech is often construed to mean the right to espouse whatever opinion one might hold, and I think that is indeed an essential personal freedom that Americans take for granted in a way that is rather special in the history of humankind. Note also that the first amendment explicitly includes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” – a right that Americans sometimes exercise but also frequently attempt to deny to each other.

Why does this come up now? Well, if you haven’t been keeping up with current events, George Floyd died in custody after being arrested in Minneapolis, sparking protests – peaceable assemblages – across the country and around the world.

In the last sentence, I intentionally use a misleading structure common in both the press and in police reports: “George Floyd died…”, as if it were something that just happened, like a butterfly happening to pass by. Indeed, the initial police report on the incident stated that Floyd “seemed to be in medical distress” while omitting mention of any causal factor for that distress. Similarly, the medical examiner’s report exonerated the police, attributing Floyd’s death to “underlying medical conditions.”

That is some major league bullshit.

The cause of Floyd’s death is not mysterious. Officer Derek Chauvin crushed Floyd’s windpipe by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. That is considerably longer than the longest TV commercial break you have ever been modestly annoyed by. Who among us has never raged WILL THESE COMMERCIALS NEVER END? Now imagine feeling the life being crushed out of you for a considerably longer period while lying flat on your belly with your hands already cuffed behind your back. That’s right – George Floyd was already handcuffed and on the ground while being pinned by the neck. In no way can this be construed as resisting arrest. He was already under police control and in no position to resist anything, up to and including being murdered.

A more accurate statement using the active voice would be “Police arrested George Floyd, then brutally murdered him as he lay helplessly handcuffed on the ground.” There was an obvious  cause for his “medical distress:” Derek Chauvin’s knee and body weight. “Underlying conditions” played no role. Before being pinned and crushed, Floyd was alive. After, he was dead. It didn’t matter if he had been suffering from terminal cancer: that’s not what killed him. Officer Chauvin did. There is no alleged about it: we can all personally witness this heinous act through now-ubiquitous video recordings.

The more puritanical grammarians might object that I am not merely using the active voice that the police and coroner’s report (and some press accounts) take care to avoid. I am also using pejorative adverbs: brutally and helplessly. Yes. Yes I am. Because those words apply. If you want an illustration to go along with the dictionary definition of these words, then go watch all 8:46 of the execution of George Floyd.

As egregious as this case is, it is not an isolated incident. That both the police and coroner’s reports whitewash the incident with intentionally vague and passive language is a dead give away that this is standard operating procedure. They’ve done it before. Many times. So many times that there is a well-rehearsed language of obfuscation to subvert the plain facts of the matter.

This event has sparked protests around the country because it illustrates an all too familiar pattern of police behavior in black communities. I’ve heard various people say things like “It can’t be that bad.” Yet this systematic police brutality is what protesters are saying is their life experience of being black in America. Are you in a position to know better than they?

I’ve heard people say worse things. Like blaming the victim. Floyd was a career criminal, so he deserved what he got. This is such a common sentiment, apparently, that it affected a Google search I did the other day. I was trying to look up a geology term, and got as far as typing “geo” when Google auto-suggested

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Really? This is such a common conceit that the mere three letters g e o leads Google to think I’m searching on George Floyd’s criminal past? I can think of a lot of more likely things to follow from g e o. Given the timing, I can see how his name would come up quickly. Just his name. Why add on “criminal past”? How many people must be doing that search for this to be Google’s top hit? 

News flash: people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It is the purpose of police to apprehend suspects and that of the courts and a jury of citizens to decide guilt or innocence. Whatever the alleged crime, the punishment is not summary execution by the police on the spot. As much as some few of them seem to want to be, the police are not and should not be Judge Dredd.

The same victim-blaming is going on with the protests. People have assembled in communities all over the country to protest – a right guaranteed by the first amendment. As near as I can tell, most of these assemblies have been peaceable. Given the righteous, raw anger over the arbitrary state-abetted murder of American citizens, it is hardly surprising that some of these assemblies devolve into riots. The odds of this happening are seen time and again to be greatly enhanced when the police show up to “keep order.” All too often we have seen the police act as the aggressors and instigators of violence. If you haven’t seen that, then you are not paying attention – or not following a credible news source. Fox, OANN, Breitbart, the Sinclair broadcasting network – these are not credible new sources. They are propaganda machines that are keen on focusing attention on the bad behavior of a minority of protesters in the hopes that you’ll be distracted from the police brutality that sparked the demonstrations in the first place.

Victim-blaming is an excuse closet racists use to dodge engagement with the real issue of police misconduct. “He was a career criminal! He deserved it!” and “Riots are bad! Police must keep order and protect property!” These are distractions from the real issue. Property is not as important as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Black Americans are not assured of any of those. When they peacefully assemble to petition the government for a redress of grievances, they are met with masses of police in riot gear hurling flash-bangs and teargas. Even if a few of these assemblages lead to riots and some looting, so what? That is nothing in comparison with existential threat to life and liberty suffered by all too many Americans because of the color of their skin.

An old friend tried to make the case to me that, basically, “mobs are bad.” I reacted poorly to his clueless but apparently sincere buy-in to the misdirection of victim-blaming, and felt bad about it afterwards. But he was wrong, in an absolute moral sense, and I have no patience left for blaming the victim. Yes. Mobs are bad. Duh. But going straight to that willfully misses the point. This didn’t start with mob violence out nowhere. It started with the systematic oppression of an entire group of American citizens defined in literally the most superficial way possible –  the pigmentation of their skin. The police have many roles in our society, some for the good, some not. One of the bad roles has been as enforcers of a de facto system of white supremacy – a system so deeply ingrained that most white people aren’t even aware that it exists.

I would like to believe, as many white folk apparently do, that white supremacy is a thing of the past. An ugly chapter in our past now relegated to the dustbin of history. Yet I look around and see that it is alive and well all around us.

We – all of us who are American citizens – have an obligation to make things better for our fellow citizens. At a very minimum, that means listening to their concerns, not denying their experience. Just because it is horrible doesn’t make it untrue. So don’t try to tell me about the evils of riots and mobs until you first engage with the underlying causes therefore. These are mere symptoms of the societal cancer that is white supremacy. They are natural, inevitable reactions to decades upon decades of degradation and disenfranchisement heaped on top of centuries of dehumanization through slavery and lynchings. Until you acknowledge and engage meaningfully with these brutal aspects of history and modern-day reality, you have zero credibility to complain about any of their toxic offspring. Doing so is a clear sign that you are part of the problem.

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Fuzzy Thing!

Fuzzy Thing!

I was contacted today by a colleague at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who was seeking to return some photographic plates of Halley’s comet that had been obtained with the Burrell Schmidt telescope. I at first misread the email – I get so many requests for data, I initially assumed that he was looking for said plates. That sent me into a frenzy of where the heck are they? about data obtained by others well before my time as the director of the Warner & Swasey Observatory. Comet Halley last came by in 1986.

Fortunately, reading comprehension kicked in, and I realized that all I really needed to figure out was where they should go. The lower pressure version of where the heck are they? That would be the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, which has had the good sense to archive the vast treasury of astronomical plates that many observatories obtained in the pre-digital era but don’t always have the ability to preserve. But this post isn’t about that; it is just a spark to the memory.

In 1986, I was a first-year graduate student in the Princeton physics department. As such, I had at that time little more competence in observing the sky than any other physicist (practically none). Nevertheless, I traipsed out into an open field at the dark edge of town on a clear night with a pair of binoculars and a vague knowledge of what part of the sky Comet Halley should be in. How hard could it be to spot the most famous comet in history?

Impossibly hard. There was nothing to see, so far as I could find. The apparition of 1986 was a bust. This informed in me a bad attitude towards comets. There had never been a good apparition in my lifetime (all of 22 years at that point), and Halley certainly wasn’t one. I accepted that decent comets must be a rare occurrence.

Flash forward a decade to 1996, by which time I was an accomplished observer with a good working knowledge of the celestial sphere. A new comet was discovered – Hyakutake – and with it came much hype. Yeah, yeah, I’d heard it all before. Boring. Comets were always a flop.

Comet Hyakutake made a close approach to Earth in March of 1996. Its wikipedia page is pretty good, with a nice illustration of its orbit and its path on the sky as perceived from the Earth. I was working at DTM at the time, where there were lots of planetary scientists as well as a few astronomers. Someone posted an ephemeris, so despite my distrust of comets I found myself peeking at what its trajectory would be. Nevertheless, we had a long period of cloudy weather, so there was nothing to see even if there was something to see, which I expected there wasn’t.

At this time, my elder daughter Caitlyn was two years old. I made a habit of taking her out and pointing things out in the sky. We watched the sunset, the moon set after it near new moon, and the moon rise near full moon. She seemed content to listen to her old man babble about the lights in the sky. Apparently more of that sank in than I realized.

My wife Anne was teaching at Loyola, and her department chair had invited us over for a party around the vernal equinox. We enjoyed the adult company and Caitlyn put up well with it – up to a point. It got dark and we bid our farewells and headed out. We had parked across the street, and on the way out Betsy (our hostess) said “Stacy – you’re an astronomer. Where’s the comet?”

I got this pained expression. Stupid comets. But it had cleared up for the first time in nearly a week, and looking up from the front door, I could quickly orient myself on the sky. Doing so, I realize that the comet was behind the house. So I pointed up and over, towards the back yard and through the roof: “Over there.” I continued across the street to the car with the toddler cradled in my left arm, fiddling with the keys with my right hand.

We did not have a nice car: one had to insert the key manually into the door to unlock it. As I went around the car to get to the driver’s side, I was focused on this mundane task. It did not occur to me to look up in the direction I had just pointed. I felt Caitlyn stretch her arm to point at the sky, exclaiming “Fuzzy thing!”

I looked up. There is was: a big, bright, fuzzy ball. A brilliant cometary apparition, the coma easily visible even in Baltimore. My two-year old daughter spotted it and accurately classified it before I even looked up.

Comet Hyakutake on March 22, 1996.

Comet Hyakutake was an amazing event. Not only spectacular to look at, but it drove home celestial mechanics in a visceral way. It was at this time very close to Earth (by the scale of such things). That meant it made noticeable progress in its orbit from night to night. You couldn’t see it moving just staring at it, but one night is was here, the next night it was there, the following night over there. It was skipping through the constellations at a dizzying speed for an object that takes c. 70,000 years to complete one orbit. But we were close enough that one could easily see the progress it made across the sky from night to night, if not minute to minute. If you wanted to take a picture with a telescope, you had to track the telescope to account for this – hence the star trails in the image above: the stars appear as streaks because the telescope is moving with the comet, not with the sky.

The path of Comet Huyakutake across the sky.

This figure (credit: Tom Ruen) shows the orbital path of Comet Huyakutake projected on the sky (constellations outlined in blue). Most of the time, the comet is far away near the aphelion of its orbit. As it fell in towards the sun, its path made annual ellipses due to the reflex motion of the Earth’s own orbit – the parallax. These grew in size until the comet came sweeping by in the month of March, 1996. Think about it: it spent tens of thousands of years spiraling down towards us, only to shoot by, transitioning well across the sky in only a couple of weeks. Celestial mechanics made visible.

Not long after Hyakutake started to fade, Comet Hale-Bopp became visible. Hale-Bopp did not pass as close to the Earth as Hyakutake, so it didn’t leap across the sky like Tom Bombadil. But Hale-Bopp was a physically larger comet. As such, it got bright and stayed bright for a long time, remaining visible to the naked eye for a record year and half. In the months after Hyakutake’s apparition, we could see Hale-Bopp chasing the sunset from the balcony of our apartment. Caitlyn and I would sit there and watch it as the twilight faded into dark. Her experience of comets had been the opposite of mine: where in my thirty years (before that point) they had been rare and disappointing, in her (by then) three years they had been common and spectacular.

The sky is full of marvels. You never know when you might get to see one.