Does dark matter cause cancer? It's a fun question to play with because we don't actually know what dark matter is, let alone whether its hypothetical components are capable of emitting mutation-generating radiation. But since the stuff constitutes an estimated 80 percent of the universe's known matter (if it even exists), astrophysicists are constantly analyzing and re-analyzing their models trying to pin down one of science's most compelling mysteries.
One recent analysis, headed by Olga Chashchina of the Ecole Polytechnique in France and Zurab Silagadze from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Russia, posits that a particular kind of dark matter known as mirror dark matter could pose major health risks to any human exposed to it, theoretically speaking. Here's how MIT Technology Review summed it up:
"Their idea is that the universe could have an invisible partner made of exact mirrors of all the particles known to exist today. In this view, there would be mirror protons, neutrons and electrons which interact to create form mirror atoms, rocks, meteorites, planets, stars, and so on.
"This parallel stuff is called mirror dark matter and it has all the same properties of ordinary matter, but interacts with it only weakly and via gravity. 'The resulting mirror world very much resembles our ordinary one, as far as the existence of various familiar astrophysical objects is concerned,' say Chashchina and Silagadze."
That may sound a little sci-fi hocus-pocus, but this is theoretical physics we're talking about. Everything's a little sci-fi hocus-pocus — and then some of it ends up being legit. In this case, Chashchina and Silagadze are responding to previous research, which deemed dark matter to be relatively safe if it were brought into contact with human skin. Chashchina and Silagadze instead present a theory in which potentially hazardous objects do exist within this bizarro dark matter. And when the dark matter interacts with ordinary matter, the results could be quite troublesome:
"The key interaction between mirror and ordinary matter is between ordinary photons and mirror photons. This interaction causes mirror dark matter to gain an ordinary charge. ... A collision between a mirror asteroid and Earth would be catastrophic. This is highly unlikely, but Chashchina and Silagadze say a much more probable event is a collision with mirror micrometeorites in the form of mirror dust particles that are likely to fill the mirror universe."
The scientists' analysis leads them to believe that those mirror micrometeorites would cause all sorts of mayhem should they come into contact with DNA, spurring the sorts of mutations that lead to malignant cancer.
Robert Montenegro is a writer, playwright, and dramaturg who lives in Washington DC. His beats include the following: tech, history, sports, geography, culture, and whatever Elon Musk has said on Twitter over the past couple days. He is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @Monteneggroll and visit his po'dunk website at robertmontenegro.com.
Read more at MIT Technology Review.
You can find the full "Dark matter as a cancer hazard" paper here.