Controversial New Theory That Says There's No Gravity or Dark Matter Passes Its First Test

Physicist Erik Verlinde's theory successfully predicts the distribution of gravity around 33,000+ galaxies without relying on unobserved "dark matter".

Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde has been shaking up the physics world with his controversial theory of “emergent gravity”, which sees gravity not as a fundamental force but rather as a force that comes into existence as a result of microscopic changes in the spacetime’s structure. Verlinde came out with this theory in 2010, taking on the laws of Newton and calling gravity “an illusion”. In 2016, his follow-up paper argued that there is also no mysterious “dark matter” in existence, which is supposed to (along with dark energy) make up to 95% of the universe but has so far not been detected.


Now a team of Dutch astronomers, led by Margot Brouwer from Leiden Observatory, has tested one aspect of Verlinde’s theory and found that it actually worked!

Brouwer’s team relied on the effect of “gravitational lensing” to test Verlinde’s prediction of gravity distribution around 33,000+ galaxies. Planets closer to Earth tend to bend light that's coming from planets farther away, thus creating a lens effect. This can be used to establish a galaxy's mass.

Normally, at distances that are up to a hundred times the radius of the galaxy, Einstein’s theory of gravity actually doesn’t account for the strength of the force of gravity. The existence of the hypothetical dark matter is invoked to make the numbers work. But Verlinde’s theory actually predicts how much gravity there would be without relying on dark matter, using only the mass of the visible matter. 

Measuring the distribution of gravity using gravitational lensing.  Credit: APS/Alan Stonebraker; galaxy images from STScI/AURA, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Brouwer used Verlinde’s theory to calculate a prediction for the gravity of 33,613 galaxies and found that it compares well with the numbers from the measurements via gravitational lensing. The scientist cautions, however, that dark matter could still be an explanation for the additional gravitational force but as a free, unobserved parameter. The trouble with "free parameters" is that they can be tweaked to adjust for differences between observations and hypotheses.

"The dark matter model actually fits slightly better with the data than Verlinde’s prediction," Brouwer explained to the New Scientist. "But then if you mathematically factor in the fact that Verlinde’s prediction doesn’t have any free parameters, whereas the dark matter prediction does, then you find Verlinde’s model is actually performing slightly better.

As this test only looks at the validity of Verlinde’s theory in a very specific situation, more work needs to be done to prove its worth more broadly.  

"The question now is how the theory develops, and how it can be further tested. But the result of this first test definitely looks interesting, “ said Brouwer.

Watch her explain her approach and work here:

The results will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. You can read the paper online here.

COVER PHOTO: Former Microsoft software developer Charles Simonyi flies during a parabolic flight aboard a zero-gravity simulator, a Russian IL-76 MDK aircraft used for astronauts' training flights in weightlessness, in Star City outside Moscow, 26 February 2007. (Photo credit: MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.