In Brief
  • Some suspect that dark matter might be composed of black holes—the incredibly dense remnants of collapsed stars and matter.
  • But black holes, for all their exotic nature, are just huge accretions of normal matter; scientists strongly suspect dark matter is something different—something hitherto unknown.

One of the greatest mysteries in modern science is dark matter. If you aren’t familiar with the topic, dark matter and dark energy are the two “missing pieces” of our universe (though, not everyone is convinced of dark energy). They are needed to explain the geometry of space and the total amount of observed matter that exists in space. In short, they explain the large-scale structure of the universe and its observed expansion.

A rendering of how filaments of dark matter might encase galaxies (Credit: AMNH)
A rendering of how filaments of dark matter might encase galaxies. Image Credit: AMNH

We have evidence for dark matter because we can observe the way that it interacts gravitationally with visible matter and electromagnetic radiation. However, we’ve never actually seen it.

This is a bit of a problem.

Thanks to a number of observations, we know that dark matter is out there, and that it makes up some 26.8% of the total energy density of the observable universe…we just don’t know what it is. As a result, a number of individuals have come up with interesting hypotheses about what makes up dark matter. One of the more intriguing ideas involves everyone’s favorite cosmological objects—black holes.

Uncovering Black Holes

Black holes are the most massive and powerful objects in the known universe. In fact, they’re so massive, and they warp spacetime so much, that (if it gets too close) not even light can escape their clutches. Since light can’t escape a black hole, is it possible that these enormous structures are actually dark matter? After all, dark matter is, in essence, just a huge accumulation of matter that we can’t see.

So. Could black holes be the answer to the puzzle? Well, not quite.

Remember, black holes are the most powerful objects in the known universe. As they wander about the cosmos, they tend to make their presence known. They do this through a variety of ways. First, there is gravity. We can “see” black holes (or at least, see the effect that they have) by measuring their impact on the matter around them.

A clear example of this are the supermassive black holes that live in the center of galaxies. Looking toward the center of our own galaxy, we see stars swinging about at excessive speeds.  And as Ann Martin, an astronomer from Cornell University, notes, the only thing that explains the extreme speed of these stars is a supermassive black hole. Martin notes that, “Using this and the equations that describe the orbits of these stars, we can actually estimate the mass of the black hole.”

Now, this isn’t the only way that the gravity of a black hole allows us to detect them. Like all massive objects, they warp light, changing its direction as it travels across space. This is known as “gravitational lensing,” and it allows us to see black holes (or, rather, detect their existence).

Second, there is the accretion disk. Don’t know what an accretion disk is? An accretion disk is, essentially, a scorching hot ring of fire that surrounds a black hole. It forms because, as matter falls in towards a black hole, it doesn’t fall straight in; rather, it swirls around and around as it gets closer (kind of like a vortex). As it swirls, the matter rubs together, causing friction, which causes a lot of heat. Ultimately, this fiery mass of matter gets heated to hundreds of thousands of degrees.

So, if a black hole is feeding, we will definitely see it.

This artist's impression shows the surroundings of a supermassive black hole, typical of that found at the heart of many galaxies. The black hole itself is surrounded by a brilliant accretion disc of very hot, infalling material and, further out, a dusty torus. There are also often high-speed jets of material ejected at the black hole's poles that can extend huge distances into space. (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada)
This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of a supermassive black hole, typical of that found at the heart of many galaxies. The black hole itself is surrounded by a brilliant accretion disc of very hot, infalling material and, further out, a dusty torus. There are also often high-speed jets of material ejected at the black hole’s poles that can extend huge distances into space. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

In short, it’s unlikely that there are a horde of black holes wandering about the cosmos undetected because we can (and do) detect black holes.

Third, we know that dark matter exists because we have mathematical graphs that show how fast material in a galaxy is rotating in relation to the center of the galaxy (where most of the galactic material is located). And, as a result of these graphs, we know that dark matter surrounds galaxies. In the end, the farther out you go, the more mass grows…and it grows by a lot. So, in short, we know that dark matter isn’t just some black hole that exists out in the middle of intergalactic space based on the way that galaxies rotate and evolve over time.

And Another Thing…

In the end, we need a firm understanding of dark matter (at least as much as we can know) to answer the question conclusively. As Emma Grocutt, from the CFHTL Survey notes:

The most interesting thing about dark matter is not simply that we can’t see it, it’s that we know dark matter is not made of the same stuff as normal baryonic matter. This is actually why we can’t see it—baryons interact with each other through gravity, nuclear forces and the electrostatic force. These interactions are what allow baryonic matter (such as stars) to emit light, and what prevent you from putting your hand through a table—the particles of your hand are electrostatically repelled from the particles in the table. Dark matter, however, only interacts through gravity. This is why we see its effects on the motions of galaxies and stars, but why we can’t see it directly; it does not emit or absorb light. Dark matter particles can also pass through regular matter almost completely undetected since they don’t interact electrostatically, meaning we can’t touch it or sense it in any direct way.

Thus, the main issues with thinking that dark matter might be black holes is the assumption that dark matter is just like baryonic matter (the matter that makes up everything that we can see and measure). It’s not. Also, it is problematic to think that black holes are strange objects that interact with normal matter differently than other cosmic objects (like stars). They don’t. Black holes are just massive accretions of normal, everyday matter.