A Billion Tiny Pendulums Could Detect the Universe’s Missing Mass


Matter Pie Chart

Credit: NIST

Researchers have proposed a novel method for finding dark matter.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their colleagues have proposed a novel method for finding dark matter, the cosmos’s mystery material that has eluded detection for decades. Dark matter makes up about 27% of the universe; ordinary matter, such as the stuff that builds stars and planets, accounts for just 5% of the cosmos. (A mysterious entity called dark energy, accounts for the other 68%.)

According to cosmologists, all the visible material in the universe is merely floating in a vast sea of dark matter — particles that are invisible but nonetheless have mass and exert a gravitational force. Dark matter’s gravity would provide the missing glue that keeps galaxies from falling apart and account for how matter clumped together to form the universe’s rich galactic tapestry. 

The proposed experiment, in which a billion millimeter-sized pendulums would act as dark matter sensors, would be the first to hunt for dark matter solely through its gravitational interaction with visible matter. The experiment would be one of the few to search for dark matter particles with a mass as great as that of a grain of salt, a scale rarely explored and never studied by sensors capable of recording tiny gravitational forces.


Dark matter, the hidden stuff of our universe, is notoriously difficult to detect. In search of direct evidence, NIST researchers have proposed using a 3D array of pendulums as force detectors, which could detect the gravitational influence of passing dark matter particles. When a dark matter particle is near a suspended pendulum, the pendulum should deflect slightly due to the attraction of both masses. However, this force is very small, and difficult to isolate from environmental noise that causes the pendulum to move. To better isolate the deflections from passing particles, NIST researchers propose using a pendulum array. Environmental noise affects each pendulum individually, causing them to move independently. However, particles passing through the array will produce correlated deflections of the pendulums. Because these movements are correlated, they can be isolated from the background noise, revealing how much force a particle delivers to each pendulum and the particle’s speed and direction, or velocity. Credit: NIST

Previous experiments have sought dark matter by looking for nongravitational signs of interactions between the invisible particles and certain kinds of ordinary matter. That’s been the case for searches for a hypothetical type of dark matter called the WIMP (weakly interacting massive particles), which was a leading candidate for the unseen material for more than two decades. Physicists looked for evidence that when WIMPs occasionally collide with chemical substances in a detector, they emit light or kick out electric charge. 

Researchers hunting for WIMPs in this way have either come up empty-handed or garnered inconclusive results; the particles are too light (theorized to range in mass between that of an electron and a proton) to detect through their gravitational tug. 

With the search for WIMPs seemingly on its last legs, researchers at NIST and their colleagues are now considering a more direct method to look for dark matter particles that have a heftier mass and therefore wield a gravitational force large enough to be detected.

“Our proposal relies purely on the gravitational coupling, the only coupling we know for sure that exists between dark matter and ordinary luminous matter,” said study co-author Daniel Carney, a theoretical physicist jointly affiliated with NIST, the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) and the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS) at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. 

The researchers, who also include Jacob Taylor of NIST, JQI and QuICS; Sohitri Ghosh of JQI and QuICS; and Gordan Krnjaic of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, calculate that their method can search for dark matter particles with a minimum mass about half that of a grain of salt, or about a billion billion times the mass of a proton. The scientists reported their findings on October 13, 2020, in Physical Review D.

Pendulums as Force Detectors

Dark matter, the hidden stuff of our universe, is notoriously difficult to detect. In search of direct evidence, NIST researchers have proposed using a 3D array of pendulums as force detectors, which could detect the gravitational influence of passing dark matter particles. Credit: NIST

Because the only unknown in the experiment is the mass of the dark matter particle, not how it couples to ordinary matter, “if someone builds the experiment we suggest, they either find dark matter or rule out all dark matter candidates over a wide range of possible masses,” said Carney. The experiment…



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