2035: Dark Matter Candidates

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Dark Matter Candidates
My theory is that dark matter is actually just a thin patina of grime covering the whole universe, and we don't notice it because we haven't thoroughly cleaned the place in eons.
Title text: My theory is that dark matter is actually just a thin patina of grime covering the whole universe, and we don't notice it because we haven't thoroughly cleaned the place in eons.


Dark matter is a hypothetical, invisible form of matter used by the vast majority of astronomers to explain the far too high apparent mass of objects at large scales in our universe. In galaxies, stars are orbiting faster than the gravitational force of the sum of the masses of visible matter in the galaxy could cause, and entire galaxies are observed moving much faster around each other than their visible masses could explain. In galactic collisions, the mass can appear to separate from the visible matter, as if the mass doesn't collide but the visible matter does. A small handful of galaxies have been observed to not have this property, suggesting that it is a thing that a galaxy can have more or less of and is separable from. At scales of our solar system, those effects are too small and can't be measured. The most plausible explanation for all of these phenomena is that there is some "dark matter" that has gravity, but is otherwise undetectable. In cosmology, dark matter is estimated to account for 85% of the total matter in the universe.

This comic gives a set of possibilities for what dark matter could possibly be, charted by mass from smallest (given in electronvolts) to largest (given in kilograms). Masses in the range 10−15 to 10−3 kg are given in grams together with appropriate prefixes, while the ton takes the place of 103 kg.

Only massive objects ranging from subatomic particles up to super massive ones are covered in this comic. There are also alternative hypotheses trying to modify general relativity with no need of additional matter. The problem is that these theories can't explain all different observations at once. Nonetheless dark matter is a mystery because no serious candidate has been found yet.

The joke in this comic is that the range of the mass of the possible particles and objects stretch over 81 powers of ten, with explanations suggested by astronomers covering only some portions of that range. Randall fills the gaps with highly absurd suggestions.


An axion is a hypothetical elementary particle postulated in 1977 to resolve the strong CP problem in quantum chromodynamics, a theory of the strong force between quarks and gluons which form hadrons like protons or neutrons. If axions exist within a specific range of mass they might be a component of dark matter. The advantage of this particle is that it's based on a theory which could be proved or also disproved by measurements in the future. Other theories, not mentioned in this comic, like the weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are much more vague.

Sterile neutrino[edit]

Sterile neutrinos are hypothetical particles interacting only via gravity. It's an actual candidate for dark matter. The well known neutrinos are also charged under the weak interaction and can be detected by experiments.

Electrons painted with space camouflage[edit]

Electrons are fundamental particles which compose the outer layers of atoms. A large number of electrons in the galaxy would be relatively easy to detect, as they not only interact with light (which dark matter does not appear to), but also have a strong electric charge. Presumably, space camouflage is a positively-charged coating which prevents electrons from interacting with light. (Needless to say,[citation needed] this is not an actual candidate for dark matter.) The mass of an electron is about 0.5 MeV which fits well into the graph.


A neutralino is a hypothetical particle from supersymmetry and is also a current candidate for dark matter. But there is not evidence whether or not supersymmetry is correct and none of the predicted particles have been found yet.


In theoretical physics, a Q-ball is a stable group of particles. It's an actual candidate for dark matter.

(In billiards, a cue ball is the white [or yellow] ball hit with the cue in normal play. In addition, Cueball is the name explainxkcd uses for the most common xkcd character.)


Pollen is a joke candidate, though people with seasonal allergies may suspect that the universe is genuinely made up entirely of pollen in the springtime.


No-See-Ums are a family (Ceratopogonidae) of small flies, 1–4 mm long, that can pass through most window screens. Another joke candidate, because dark matter is invisible and the name "no-see-ums" implies that the flies are invisible.


Insects of the clade Anthophila are major pollinators of flowering plants. In recent years bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate; Doctor Who explained that they are in fact aliens leaving Earth prior to a Dalek invasion.


In pool, the 8-ball is a black ball numbered 8. It's a pun with Q-ball/cue ball. Unless undetected aliens have discovered billiards and become addicted to it, 8-balls are found only on Earth and are, hence, unlikely dark matter candidates. The 8-ball is also a popular unit of sale for black market pharmaceuticals like cocaine, where it stands for ⅛ ounce (3.5 g). This doesn't make sense as a dark matter candidate either – unless dark matter is hard to detect because it's illegal & trying to avoid the cops.

Space cows[edit]

Cows are bovines extensively farmed on Earth for milk and meat.[citation needed] Although there is folklore concerning cows achieving circum-lunar orbits, not to mention their appearance on a beloved space western TV show, as Muppet cow Natalie in the Sesame Street News Flash (and others less-remembered), they have yet to be found elsewhere in the Universe. In the television show "Too Close for Comfort", one of the characters is the cartoonist of a comic strip called "Cosmic Cow". Spherical cows (and especially those in a vacuum, as they would essentially be if in space) have also been used (humorously) by physicists needing to simplify some source of mass in a given problem.

Obelisks, monoliths, pyramids[edit]

While those human constructions are huge on a human scale, they're negligible at universe-scale. It would take a large number of such constructions, distributed through space, to replicate the effects of dark matter; while a scenario could be envisioned where enough such constructs existed, with properties and distribution allowing them to match observations, this is obviously not a likely explanation. They often show up in fiction and pseudo-scientific literature as alien artifacts generating immense unknown power out of nowhere, with the most famous and influential example being the three monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey (with the largest having a mass of about 500,000 tonnes).

Black holes ruled out by:[edit]

Black holes are known to occur in sizes of a few solar masses (about 1030-1031 kg) as remnants of the core of former big stars, as well as in quite large sizes at the centers of galaxies (millions or even billions of solar masses). But recent gravitational wave detections indicate that black holes at 50 or 100 solar masses also exist, though their origin is still not understood. Randall doesn't mention this but some astronomers hope that these could fill at least a part of the gap. While black holes are widely reported to be ruled out as a candidate for dark matter for various reasons Randall has listed, such constraints are based on "monochromatic" mass distributions -- meaning that all such black holes are assumed to have the same mass -- which is considered physically implausible for populations of merging bodies which are known to have vastly different masses. See: Primordial Black Holes as Dark Matter (2017) and Primordial black hole constraints for extended mass functions (2017) (That this is a common practice in cosmology may be part of the reference to "buzzkill" astronomers.) He rules out all black holes in the range of approximately 1010 kg to 1033 kg even when below some gaps at the bars appear.

Except the last item, all range below the mass of the sun (2x1030 kg) while the smallest known black hole is about four solar masses.

  • Gamma rays: If dark matter were black holes of this size, the black holes could be evaporating by the predicted Hawking radiation, and we'd see a buzz of gamma rays from every direction if many of those objects would exist. Nonetheless this radiation is still hypothetical and not been observed on any known black holes. Furthermore those objects would be very small because the Schwarzschild radius of a 1012 kg black hole is approximately 148 fm (1.48×10−13 m), which is between the size of an atom and an atomic nucleus.
  • GRB lensing: Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the brightest events in the universe and have been observed only in distant galaxies. While gravitational microlensing (see below) is an astronomical phenomenon, it doesn't make much sense here. GRBs are short (milliseconds to several hours) and are often detected only by space-borne sensors for gamma-rays -- rarely at any other wavelengths. Measuring lensing effects would be very difficult. This paper discusses the probability of detecting lensing effects caused by galactic halo objects among the known GRBs given sufficient objects to represent the missing mass.
  • Neutron star data: Neutron stars aren't black holes, but they're also very small highly compact objects at about 1.4-2.16 solar masses. While black holes can't be observed directly, neutron stars are detectable in many wavelengths. The number of them gives a clue about the number of black holes close to the mass of the sun, a number which is far too low to make up dark matter.
  • Micro lensing: Gravitational microlensing is a gravitational lens effect, (the path of radiation is changed by passing through space bent by nearby mass). This was predicted by Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and was first confirmed in 1919 during a solar eclipse, when a star which was nearly in line with the sun appeared more distant to the sun than usual. Astronomers have found many so called Einstein rings or Einstein crosses where a massive object in front of other galaxies bends the light toward us. Those massive objects may be black holes, but the number is far too low to explain dark matter.
  • Solar system stability: Our solar system is 4.5 billion years old and has been very stable since shortly after its formation. If not, we wouldn't exist. If dark objects at 1024 to 1030 kg (mass of Earth up to mass of Sun) accounted for dark matter and were distributed throughout galaxies, there should be many of them in the vicinity of our solar system and the system wouldn't be stable at all.
  • Buzzkill Astronomers: Black holes above a certain size are thought by some astronomers to be impossible to miss, due to the effects they have on nearby matter. At the mass of some 1030 kg there must be many supernova remnants we still haven't found. Black holes of about 1035 kg have long been considered dark matter candidates by a minority group of cosmologists, as could be seen here Primordial Black Holes as All Dark Matter (2010) and the Milky Way's first discovered intermediate mass black hole falling in this range shown here Signs of Second Largest Black Hole in the Milky Way.

Not covered by this comic are massive astrophysical compact halo objects (MACHOs) composed of hard to detect dim objects like black holes, neutron stars, brown dwarfs, and other objects composed of normal baryonic matter. Nevertheless observations have shown that the total amount of baryonic matter in our universe on large scales is much smaller than it would be needed to explain all the measured gravitational effects.

Maybe those orbit lines on space diagrams are real and very heavy[edit]

Diagrams of our solar system (or any planetary system) often show lines representing the elliptical paths the planet takes around its sun. These lines don't show real objects, though. Astronomers just draw them on pictures of the solar system to show where the planets move. If you draw a line on a map to give someone directions, that line isn't an object in real life; it's just on the map. If these lines were real, they would be huge (Earth's would be 940 million km long (2π AU) and Neptune's would be 28 billion kilometers long). Powers of Ten (1977) gives a good sense of just how large these orbit lines need to be in order to be visible in space diagrams. If these orbit lines were also very dense, they would have a huge mass and could possibly account for the missing 85% of the mass in the universe. But they would also constantly be impaling the planets, including the Earth, which would probably be a problem.[citation needed] Their mass would also affect planetary motions in ways which we would detect. A related worry about space travel was expressed in previous centuries; it was thought that the planets were embedded within crystal shells (spheres or Platonic solids), and a rocket into space could smash the shells and send planets plummeting to Earth. Another joke candidate.

Title text[edit]

The title text refers to the fact that space is just vast emptiness where a little bit of dirt could be overlooked. Actually the mean density of detectable matter in the universe, according to NASA, is equivalent to roughly 1 proton per 4 cubic meters. And because this matter is mostly located in galaxies -- and inside there in stars and clouds -- the space between is even more empty. For comparison, one gram of hydrogen consists of 6.022 × 1023 atoms. Like at home wiping with a cleaning cloth in which we can see the dirt that wasn't clearly visible on the surface we have wiped, Randall believes that some few atoms more per cubic meter could stay undetected in the same way. This isn't true because in the space between galaxies astronomers can detect matter as it spreads over thousands or millions of cubic light years. Atoms can't hide; there is always radiation.


Dark matter candidates:
[A line graph is shown and labeled at left quarter in eV and further to the right in g together with some prefixes.]
[The labels read:]
µeV, meV, eV, keV, MeV, GeV, TeV, 10-18kg, ng, µg, mg, g, kg, TON, 106kg, 1012kg, 1018kg, 1024kg, 1030kg
[All items are shown in bars ranging between two approximately values:]
< 1 µeV - 10 meV: Axion
1 eV - 10 keV: Sterile neutrino
0.5 MeV (exactly): Electrons painted with space camouflage
10 GeV - 10 TeV: Neutralino
100 TeV - 10-17 kg: Q-ball
1 ng - 100 ng: Pollen
0.1 mg - 1 mg: No-See-Ums
10-1 g (exactly): Bees
10 g - 100 g: 8-balls
100 kg - TON: Space cows
TON - 109 kg: Obelisks, monoliths, pyramids
109 kg - 1033 kg: Black holes ruled out by:
109 kg - 1013 kg: Gamma rays
1013 kg - 1017 kg: GRB lensing
1015 kg - 1022 kg: Neutron star data
1021 kg - 1030 kg: Micro lensing
1024 kg - 1030 kg: Solar system stability
1030 kg - 1033 kg: Buzzkill astronomers
1033 kg - >1036 kg: Maybe those orbit lines on space diagrams are real and very heavy

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"thin patina of grime covering the whole universe" is a reference to the "International prototype kilogram" and the necessity to keep it dust-free to preserve its reference status. 11:14, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

I think it's just referring to how your room or furniture can get super dirty and completely covered in dust, but you don't really notice it getting dirty because it happens so gradually. But once you actually get around to cleaning your room and you remove all the dust you realize how insanely filthy your room was, now that you can compare it to clean. Since there hasn't been a massive universe cleaning within human history, we wouldn't really be able to tell if the universe was coated in dirt because we wouldn't remember what it looks like clean. Yosho27 (talk) 12:53, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
I concur, my thought upon reading the "thin patina of grime" was when I helped a friend power wash his back deck and we realized it was far more dirty than we thought; as the newly washed sections stood out in stark contrast to the grimy parts. 19:29, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

One can only hope that the solution for dealing with space cows involves space cowboys. 20:40, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

109 kg - 1033 kg black holes

Not sure if it's a mistake by Randall or he has something other in mind. But most of his black holes are far too lightweight:

  • 109 kg is a million tons, the Great Pyramid of Giza wights six times of that
  • 6x1024 kg Earth
  • 2x1030 kg Sun
  • 1031 kg smallest known stellar black hole
  • 1040 kg the real big black holes with a diameter in the size of our solar system

Everything except the Buzzkill is below a single solar mass. --Dgbrt (talk) 16:24, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

The theoretical lower limit for black hole mass is the planck mass (22 µg), although such micro black holes would evaporate very quickly under standard models. However, larger black holes were excluded fairly early by gravitational lensing searches ('buzzkill' cases), so smaller black holes had to be considered separately as dark matter candidates. --Quantum7 (talk) 20:40, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
You misunderstand my point: Those not discovered smaller black holes would need an explanation how they did form but more important here how they could be ruled out as Randall states. A nano black hole at 1010 kg disproved by gamma rays? What's Randall's point? He was more accurate in the past. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:18, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
Um, his point is that we know that black holes that size (regardless of how they came into existence) would "evaporate" in a burst of gamma rays through the process that causes Hawking radiation. Which the explanation above, you know, explains. Similarly, other light black holes (which would be formed by any number of theoretical processes other than collapsing stars, usually involving conditions early in the Big Bang) would be ruled out by the other reasons given, also explained in the explanation. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Axon pun?

My first thought upon reading 'axion' was that it was a pun on axon. Neurons have typical membrane potentials in the mV range, which lines up nicely with the meV energy of axions. Coincidence? --Quantum7 (talk) 20:44, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

An axion is a suggested subatomic particle. I'm not a biologist but if one meV is enough energy to trigger an axon our biology wouldn't work that smoothly. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:18, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
It's mV (electrical potential), not meV (energy/mass). It's a stretch, but Randall's included more distant puns before in XKCD. Source for action potential strength: [1] --Quantum7 (talk) 23:15, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

While this comic is about Dark Matter, does the explanation really need to include a justification on why Dark Matter really exists as a "substance" instead of being some error in our understanding of gravity? It seems a little excessive and unnecessary to me. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 21:46, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

I'm with you but this comic is about that "substance" like most astronomers are. This always reminds me to aether - also a famous "substance" in space more than hundred years ago which nobody could explain. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:32, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
Thanks for the laugh - my thoughts exactly! In fact, part of me wonders if Randall is actually making fun of the whole idea that there's a dark matter particle at all, since there's such a wide range of possible sizes for such a particle. His humor can be so subtle at times that someone may not realize when they're actually the butt of his joke. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 23:55, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
Actually, the observings that dark matter doesn't seem to be at same places as normal matter is countering the idea that it's because of error in out understanding of gravity. Like, not completely disproving it, but making it less likely. -- Hkmaly (talk) 04:15, 21 August 2018 (UTC)
Excessive? Maybe. But the first responses to you indicate that people who have presumably even read the explanation as to why dark matter really exists don't understand why we expect that dark matter really exists. (Sure, modified gravity theories were a reasonable alternative hypothesis fifteen years ago, but that was before we'd made multiple independent observations that the gravitational effects are decoupled from the presence of visible matter, and thus cannot simply be gravity working differently at galactic mass scales than General Relativity predicts.) (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I'm not interested in debating which viewpoint is correct. I'm not even picking a side, and yet others seem eager to argue their side with me. I'm only asking if that even needs to be included in the explanation, as it tends to distract from the points made in the comic. I think it might be more helpful to mention why it's called dark matter in the first place, which I don't see at all - maybe because of this distraction. Please remember that our primary purpose is to explain the comic, not to write a wikipedia article on the subject matter. Thanks for sharing though. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 05:31, 21 August 2018 (UTC)

Furthermore, while space cowboys were mentioned earlier in the discussion, I suspect Randall included space cows in the chart specifically as a reference to the movie Space Cowboys. Also, I think the point about Neutron Star Data ruling out black holes in that mass range is because you can't have both of them with the same mass, since the current theory is that they both form from a star collapse, but at different masses. You're always going to get one or the other from that size star, and since we find neutron stars in that range, we can't have black holes there too. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 21:59, 20 August 2018 (UTC)

The mass of neutron stars is well understood. A smaller star ends at a white dwarf and the big ones produce a black hole. Nonetheless our sun will end up into a white dwarf and the others require higher masses as in the buzzkill range at the graph. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:32, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
My point exactly - we now know quite a bit about the mass needed and process required to form a neutron star, making it unlikely the same mass would be able to form a black hole. I think that's what Randall meant in that part of the chart, but that's not what the explanation states. (Unfortunately, I've reached the point where I no longer want to argue with other editors over correct explanations.) Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 23:55, 20 August 2018 (UTC)
It seems intuitively possible, though. Imagine a black hole with the very lowest mass current theories predict they could form at, at the earliest point in time such a hole would be able to form. How much mass would it have shed through Hawking radiation since then? How far down into the neutron star weight class would it have gone by now? 11:33, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
Short answer: You probably couldn't measure it. Long answer: If black holes evaporate under Hawking radiation, a solar mass black hole will evaporate over 1064 years. This is a number far beyond any imagination. Our universe is 13.8 × 109 years old, or roughly 1010 meaning it would take the time of 1054 universes. 1054 equals to billion × billion × billion × billion × billion × billion (six times). And the smallest stellar black holes are not less than 2.4 solar masses. --Dgbrt (talk) 12:58, 24 August 2018 (UTC)
The Mysterious Eight Ball

How many of you remember the 8 Ball as a funny toy that you would ask questions and then turn over to receive an answer. Could that be the joke referred to in the 8 ball as a possible source of mysterious dark matter? --ProfKrueger (talk) 00:41, 21 August 2018 (UTC)

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're being physics-nerd-sniped! Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 00:09, 21 August 2018 (UTC)

Sorry to be picky, but I'm having trouble with "a star which was nearly in line with the sun appeared closer to the sun than usual." Doesn't a distant star's apparent position move away from the sun compared to the direct path? The light ray we see has been bent toward us, so it appears further away than an unaffected ray would, no? 03:31, 21 August 2018 (UTC)

You're not picky - you are just right. It's fixed. --Dgbrt (talk) 14:06, 21 August 2018 (UTC)

Can anyone explain how the paragraph associated with Buzzkill Astronomers has anything at all to do with a group of negative or skeptical astronomers? Am I misunderstanding the meaning of that phrase? If I'm just in the dark about some inside joke in astronomy, perhaps the explanation could enlighten me (and maybe others). As it reads right now, I don't see how anyone would find that explanation helpful. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 03:31, 22 August 2018 (UTC)

My interpretation: "Black holes above a certain size would be impossible to miss [by astronomers]". In other words, the observations of astronomers rule out any dark matter candidates in that mass range. What a buzzkill, those astronomers, making those observations... Ahiijny (talk) 19:47, 22 August 2018 (UTC)
Monolith reference

(Spoiler alert for the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey") The monoliths in the movie were not just the three individual monoliths mentioned here. Near the end of the movie, a huge number of them appeared around, and apparently merged into, Jupiter. The added mass of the swarm of monoliths is what allowed Jupiter to initiate fusion, transforming it into the star Lucifer. So, the idea of "monoliths" being a source for dark matter is a joke on the final component of the plot of 2001, not just a vague reference. Wikipedia entry on Monolith (Space Odyssey) DanShock (talk) 19:05, 23 August 2018 (UTC)

Your spoiler applies to the sequel 2010: Odyssey Two and it's highly unrealistic. The mass of Jupiter is about 75 times smaller than the smallest possible star having fusion. Meaning the swarm of monoliths would have the mass of some 75 Jupiters. But Randall puts monoliths into the range of obelisks and pyramids less than 1019 kg. And if Jupiter would collect so much dark matter nothing would happen because dark matter doesn't react with normal matter except of gravitation. --Dgbrt (talk) 19:38, 23 August 2018 (UTC)
What about WIMPs and MACHOs?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weakly_interacting_massive_particles https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_compact_halo_object (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Not covered by the comic but because both are well known I've entered both ruled-out theories into the explanation. --Dgbrt (talk) 12:21, 29 August 2018 (UTC)