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Space Science

Is Earth Weighed Down By Dark Matter? 247

Nerval's Lobster writes "There may be a giant ring of dark matter invisibly encircling the Earth, increasing its mass and pulling much harder on orbiting satellites than anything invisible should pull, according to preliminary research from a scientist specializing the physics of GPS signaling and satellite engineering. The dark-matter belt around the Earth could represent the beginning of a radically new understanding of how dark matter works and how it affects the human universe, or it could be something perfectly valid but less exciting despite having been written up by New Scientist and spreading to the rest of the geek universe on the basis of a single oral presentation of preliminary research at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December. The presentation came from telecom- and GPS satellite expert Ben Harris, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Texas- Arlington, who based his conclusion on nine months' worth of data that could indicate Earth's gravity was pulling harder on its ring of geostationary GPS satellites than the accepted mass of the Earth would normally allow. Since planets can't gain weight over the holidays like the rest of us, Harris' conclusion was that something else was adding to the mass and gravitational power of Earth – something that would have to be pretty massive but almost completely undetectable, which would sound crazy if predominant theories about the composition of the universe didn't assume 80 percent of it was made up of invisible dark matter. Harris calculated that the increase in gravity could have come from dark matter, but would have had to be an unexpectedly thick collection of it – one ringing the earth in a band 120 miles thick and 45,000 miles wide. Making elaborate claims in oral presentations, without nailing down all the variables that could keep a set of results from being twisted into something more interesting than the truth is a red flag for any scientific presentation, let alone one making audacious claims about the way dark matter behaves or weight of the Earth, according to an exasperated counterargument from Matthew R. Francis, who earned a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from Rutgers in 2005, held visiting and assistant professorships at several Northeastern universities and whose science writing has appeared in Ars Technica, The New Yorker, Nautilus, BBC Future and others including his own science blog at Galileo's Pendulum."
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Is Earth Weighed Down By Dark Matter?

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  • by thue ( 121682 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @08:16AM (#45877261) Homepage

    "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 06, 2014 @08:27AM (#45877309)

    > geostationary GPS satellites

    A what now?

  • by EasyTarget ( 43516 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @08:54AM (#45877429) Journal

    > geostationary GPS satellites

    A what now?

    Yeah, I had the same thought, if the summary cannot tell the difference between geostationary and lower earth orbits, what hope it there that it gets anything else right?

  • by jfengel ( 409917 ) on Monday January 06, 2014 @12:31PM (#45879453) Homepage Journal

    It's not just a hypothesis. It's a hypothesis that fits some data, from GPS satellites and the Juno probe. It's solid enough to present as an idea to other scientists.

    It's not solid enough to present as an idea to the general public, but unfortunately that's what popular science publications do for a living. They want "news"; their readers want to be the first ones to hear about exciting new developments. So they publish highly speculative material without the kinds of caveats, qualifications, and context that other scientists in the field bring automatically.

    I have a love-hate relationship with them. They're helpful in drumming up public interest in science, playing up the romantic parts that help young proto-scientists engage with the field before the years of drudge work that go into actually becoming a scientist. And they help keep people feeling good about science and voting to fund it. But they mis-inform as much as they inform, and real scientists are continually having to provide the context that the magazines frequently refuse to.

    (New Scientist is better than most daily newspapers, but worse than Science News. Frequency of publication seems to make a big difference: the longer your readership is willing to wait for accurate information, and the less they demand to have it ten seconds before the next guy, the more informative they are. Web-only sources are generally the worst.)

[It is] best to confuse only one issue at a time. -- K&R