When Dark Matter Gets Fuzzy


What model of dark matter best describes our universe? A new study uses a unique region in our own galaxy to constrain one particular model: that of fuzzy dark matter.

A Matter of Modeling

dark matter

There are many models describing the composition and behavior of dark matter, and how its evolution has affected the structure of our universe. [AMNH]

Observations of our universe tell us that only 15% of the universe’s matter is the ordinary baryonic matter that we’re able to see. The remaining 85% is dark matter — mysterious material that has shaped the structure and evolution of our universe via its gravitational interactions, but that doesn’t give off any light.

Because we can’t directly observe it, dark matter is still a relative unknown — and there are many different hypothesized models that describe its nature. Is dark matter hot? Cold? Composed of subatomic particles? Or macroscopic objects like primordial black holes? There’s a model for all of these options, and the best way to test them is to compare their predictions to the actual structure that we observe.

nuclear bulge only

Plot of gas surface density from a simulation showing the formation of the CMZ — seen as the high-density gas ring at the heart of the plot — in the center of the Milky Way. This simulation included a nuclear bulge only, with no dark-matter core from the fuzzy dark matter model. [Li et al. 2020]

Constraints from an Odd Structure

One such constraining structure is a unique region in our own galaxy: the Central Molecular Zone, or CMZ. This extremely dense, rich collection of orbiting molecular gas lies in the very center of the Milky Way and spans just a few hundred light-years in diameter. Observations suggest that the molecular gas clouds orbit in a ring or a disk with a twisted 3D shape, but the thick dust that shrouds the galactic center limits what we can learn about the CMZ directly.

The CMZ’s shape is not its only mystery, however: we also don’t fully understand what caused this odd structure to develop. Past studies of the birth of our galaxy’s structure from a thin disk suggest that formation of the CMZ relies on a combination of the Milky Way’s barred gravitational potential and an especially dense nuclear region.

In a new publication led by Zhi Li (Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China), a team of scientists has now used this picture to constrain a dark matter model that relies on light dark-matter particles concentrated at the center of the galaxy.

Adding Fuzziness to the Milky Way

nuclear bulge + soliton core

Zoomed-in plot of gas surface density from a simulation showing the formation of the CMZ in the center of the Milky Way. This simulation included both a nuclear bulge and a dark-matter core from the fuzzy dark matter model. [Adapted from Li et al. 2020]

Li and collaborators conduct a series of cosmological simulations that model the formation of the Milky Way from a thin disk in a realistic gravitational potential. In some of these simulations, the authors include only a dense nuclear bulge at the center of the galaxy. In others, they also add a galaxy core consistent with the predictions of fuzzy dark matter, a model that describes the universe’s dark matter as very light bosons that exhibit wave behavior on some scales.

The authors show that the structure and dynamics of the CMZ can be reproduced well with only an exceedingly compact nuclear bulge. But the combination of a smaller nuclear bulge and a fuzzy-dark-matter core also neatly reproduces observations, leaving the door open for this dark-matter model.

So is our dark matter fuzzy or not? We can’t tell yet, but Li and collaborators outline some future observations — like pinning down the mass-to-light ratio in the galactic center — that will help us answer this question and better understand what’s going on with that invisible 85% of our universe’s matter.


“Testing the Prediction of Fuzzy Dark Matter Theory in the Milky Way Center,” Zhi Li et al 2020 ApJ 889 88. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ab6598