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Dark radiation in big bang cosmology

Keeping science in darkness


Published: 11 November 2014 (GMT+10)

Artist’s impression of the proposed new planet Vulcan. 

Credit: NASA

Sometimes the existence of a new ‘particle’ in physics has been proposed long before it was discovered by an experimentalist in a lab experiment. Some examples of this are the anti-electron (positron) proposed by Paul Dirac in 1927 and discovered in 1932; the neutron, predicted by Ernest Rutherford in 1920, and discovered by James Chadwick in 1932; the pi meson discovered by C. F. Powell’s group in 1947 but predicted by Hideki Yukawa in 1935; and in 2012 a particle was detected exhibiting most of the predicted characteristics of the Higgs boson, which was predicted by Peter Higgs and five others in 1964. For their prediction, Peter Higgs and François Englert, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013.

In astrophysics such a new ‘particle’ could be the planet Neptune. Its existence was mathematically predicted by Urbain Le Verrier before it was directly observed in 1846 by Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory. (There was some dispute over credit as John Couch Adams from Cambridge had separately made predictions on the position of the planet.)

In astrophysics today dark matter, or particles from the dark sector, are again proposed, for various reasons

Those predictions, which led to successful outcomes, were based on the established laws of nature; for Neptune it was Newton’s gravitational theory, and for particle physics, the newly developing quantum theory.

Then there was the proposal of the planet Vulcan predicted to orbit closest to the Sun, hence the reason for the choice of its name. This planet’s existence was proposed because of a certain observed disturbance in the orbit of the planet Mercury, the inner most planet in our solar system. But its orbit had a peculiar feature in that it would always remain out of sight of the Earth, on the opposite side of the Sun, so it was called ‘dark matter’. ‘Dark’ because it could never be observed. But its existence was no longer needed after Einstein in 1916 published his General Theory of Relativity and calculated very precisely the needed perturbation of Mercury’s orbit. It meant the physics needed refinement, that is, new physics was developed. This included the Newtonian physics, valid in the regime in which it was known to give correct results, but not valid outside that regime. Once that was understood, no dark matter was needed—the fudge factor was eliminated.

In astrophysics today dark matter, or particles from the dark sector, are again proposed, for various reasons. In determining the total mass of the universe by two different cosmological methods, and different data sets, different answers are obtained. To resolve this discrepancy a new particle from the dark sector has been proposed—the sterile neutrino, or dark radiation.1,2

It is important to understand that cosmology, despite claims to the contrary which refer to ‘precision cosmology’,3 is not the same type of operational, repeatable laboratory science that discovered the positron, the neutron or even the planet Neptune. In the latter case, it was not possible that astronomers could have sent a light signal to Neptune, to reflect off it. The solar system is sufficiently small though that over some reasonable timescale man can, in some sense, use the solar system as a laboratory. But that is not possible to do with the universe—it is just too large.

How do you know what the universe should really look like if the light from the distant sources never arrives here, due to extinction? It is a problem of cosmic variance.4 We can’t see all of the universe. We don’t know what it should look like and we can’t do a laboratory experiment on it. Dr Richard Lieu wrote,

“Cosmology is not even astrophysics: all the principal assumptions in this field are unverified (or unverifiable) in the laboratory … . Hence the promise of using the Universe as a laboratory from which new incorruptible physical laws may be established without the support of laboratory experiments is preposterous … .”5
It is important to understand that cosmology, despite claims to the contrary which refer to ‘precision cosmology’, is not the same type of operational, repeatable laboratory science that discovered the positron, the neutron or even the planet Neptune.

As mentioned above, proposing the existence of some as-yet-unidentified particle is not bad physics per se. But we need to understand that dark matter, dark energy and other ‘unknowns’3 were only proposed in the standard big bang cosmology to resolve conflicts between the theory and some astrophysical observations. Dark sector components—dark matter particles—are essentially only needed when cosmology is involved.6 The Standard Model of particle physics alone, as contrasted with its application to cosmology (particularly big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN), which is proposed as the source of all light elements7) does not really need them. The motivation is largely from cosmology and the worldview that the big bang is the correct cosmogony8 for the universe we see.

In short, the dark sector—incorporating dark matter, dark energy, and now dark radiation—is proposed as an auxiliary hypothesis to rescue the standard big bang model from the inconsistencies presented by observations (CMB radiation anisotropies,9 type Ia supernova data,10 etc). This makes the paradigm particularly difficult to refute, because new physics (in the untestable cosmos), or more fudge factors, can always be added to resolve any conflicts.

Dark radiation

Cosmologists have used the data from the Planck satellite survey of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation11 to calculate the total mass of the universe using the standard ΛCDM big bang model12 and compared that result with what they calculated using the data from brightest sources in the cosmos, the explosions of stars in distant galaxies, supernovae of the type Ia.13 They found that these different methods resulted in significantly different answers for the mass content and the expansion rate of the universe.2 These discrepancies could be resolved if the missing mass was in the form of some type of neutrinos or some other dark matter particles.

As a result it has been proposed to add something to the dark sector—dark radiation—in the form of a relativistic sterile neutrino.1 The proposal is needed for the early big bang universe. Here the dark sector refers to the appropriate domain of particle physics that applies. And the assumption is implicitly made that the theoretical particle physics that is used in particle physics on earth today also can be applied to the alleged past BBN process.



In the Standard Model of particle physics there are three neutrino types, called flavours (electron, muon and tau), and it is usually considered that at least one is massless. Once they were all thought to be massless, but the discovery of neutrino oscillations—whereby neutrinos change flavour and that requires their masses be different—implies that at least two of them are not massless. It is hoped that they could comprise some of the missing matter in the universe. However from BBN calculations, based on the known properties of the known three neutrinos, it has been determined that they would make a negligible contribution to the total mass in the universe.

The Standard Model precisely predicts an effective number of neutrino flavours (i.e. kinds) and that number is three. Therefore any more than this (i.e. greater than three) derived from BBN represents the presence of sterile neutrinos, or hidden sector photons; particles from the dark side.

Thus a resolution of the discrepancy in the mass of the universe derived from the CMB and SNe Ia data is achieved by adding a new dark matter particle—the sterile neutrino, or dark radiation. It is called ‘sterile’ because is does not interact with matter except via gravitation. That is, it does not interact by the weak nuclear force, as do the other known neutrinos. It is another dark component from the dark sector of physics and it is needed to keep the big bang story alive.


Here we have a situation where the determination of the mass of the universe and the Hubble Constant from two different survey methods has resulted in markedly different answers. That just should not be the case if the theory is right. So, to rescue the big bang model it has been proposed that there exists a new dark entity—dark radiation in the form of a sterile neutrino. The Standard Model of particle physics is the most successful theory in physics to date. In that theory, there is no real need for this extra neutrino, with bizarre properties such that it does not interact with normal matter like its ‘brothers’ do, hence is impossible to detect in a laboratory experiment.

But if hot big bang nucleosynthesis is the true origin of the light elements (like helium, deuterium, etc.) in our universe then it seems that a new dark sector particle is needed.14 An ‘unknown’ to explain the unknown—made-up stuff to resolve the contradictions between theory and observations; and yet, they are still in darkness.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Archidiacono, M., E. Calabrese, and Melchiorri, A., Case for Dark Radiation, Physical Review D 84:123008, 2011, Return to text.
  2. Hartnett, J.G., A Missing Neutrino—Dark Radiation, Answers Research Journal 7:357–361, 2014. Return to text.
  3. Hartnett, J.G., Big bang fudge factors,; Hartnett, J.G., ‘Cosmology is not even astrophysics’, Return to text.
  4. Hartnett, J.G., The largest structure in the observable universe or cosmic variance?, Return to text.
  5. Lieu, R., LCDM cosmology: how much suppression of credible evidence, and does the model really lead its competitors, using all evidence?, 2007; preprint available at Return to text.
  6. Having said that it has been proposed that the solar neutrino deficit, the atmospheric neutrino anomaly and the Liquid Scintillation Neutrino Detector experiment (1993–1998) excess of events would be better explained with an additional (flavour of) neutrino—the sterile neutrino. There are currently only three flavours known but if there was at least one more, a sterile neutrino, neutrino oscillations between active and the proposed sterile neutrinos could have a significant effect on the R process in type II supernovae. See Aguilar, A., et al., Evidence for neutrino oscillations from the observation of ṽε appearance in a ṽμ beam, Phys. Rev. D 64:112007, 2001; Return to text.
  7. Hartnett, J.G., Dark Matter and the Standard Model of particle physics—a search in the ‘Dark’, Return to text.
  8. The study of the origin of the universe. Return to text.
  9. Modelling of the early big bang universe is compared to the power spectrum obtained from the small fluctuations in the CMB temperature from the uniform background temperature of about 2.725K. This required a certain matter content for the universe which was much larger than observed, hence the missing matter must be dark matter. Return to text.
  10. A special class of supernovae which are used as a standard brightness (absolute luminosity) source to measure distance in the cosmos. When compared to the ΛCDM big bang model source these were dimmer than expected, and hence the inclusion of dark energy along with a good helping of dark matter. Return to text.
  11. Planck 2013 results. XVI. Cosmological parameters, Return to text.
  12. ΛCDM signifies the following: Λ the cosmological constant or dark energy and CDM Cold Dark Matter. Return to text.
  13. Riess. A., et al., A 3% Solution: Determination of the Hubble constant with the Hubble Space Telescope and wide field camera 3, ApJ 730:119, 2011. Return to text.
  14. There are many instances in the literature of where a dark particle is favoured for various combinations of models and data sets. See Fig.1 of Riemer-Sørensen, S., Parkinson, D., and Davis, T.M., What is half a neutrino? Reviewing cosmological constraints on neutrinos and dark radiation, Invited review for PASA, Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Ryan B., United States, 14 November 2014

Thank you for the article Dr. Hartnett. However I'm a little confused about the first paragraph about the other theoretical studies that were proven right. Are you saying that the difference between those discoveries and this new dark radiation/matter is that the other hypothesis's were based off factual observational science where as this dark radiation and matter is an unknown based off an unknown?

John Hartnett responds

The answer to your question is about motivation. I wrote: "It is important to understand that cosmology ... is not the same type of operational, repeatable laboratory science that discovered the positron, the neutron or even the planet Neptune." You must understand that the difference here is the motivation was/is to establish the big bang paradigm of a universe that created itself. In order to maintain that all sorts of fudge factors are invented. So in reality cosmology is philosophy and not science at all.

Kevin R P., United States, 13 November 2014

I believe that good angels and bad angels (demons) exist. Angels are describes as spirits. Just because humans do not have equipment that is sophisticated enough to observe, or measure angels, does not mean that they do not exist. Given the substantial evidence that supports the declarations of the writers of the New and Old Testaments (about the resurrection, creation, angels, whatever) our inability to study angels - scientifically - demonstrates human inferiority to God. There was a day when humans would have laughed at someone who believed in electricity - because it was not observable scientifically at that time. If these “mockers” were alive today their laughter would be a source of embarrassment to them.

I am not sure if ever delves into theoretical "creation science". I can't find anything on your website that deals with angels and their momentary, or perhaps (some angels) constant, contribution to mass and energy in what we call the universe. During the moments when angels (good and bad) are described in the Bible as interacting with the physical world, I believe, they might also, at least for that period of time, make physical contributions to various formulas: eg. Force; and thereby contribute to mass and energy. We don't know how many angels exist, or what all of their daily activities are (or, apparently, sometimes, physical properties are), or how much they contribute to mass and energy at any one time.

(I said "they might also" contribute because God could always - perfectly - negate any contribution that they make so that their actions would always be effectively undetectable by human instruments/measurements. And, or course, their “random” activities would make it very difficult to perform repeatable experiments.)

CMI editor responds

Science by definition studies the natural forces and laws, because one can assume that they are fixed and unchanging (see The biblical roots of modern science). Not only are angels supernatural beings, any interaction they have with the natural world involves volition, and hence is not predictable as the operation of natural laws is. Even the last few lines of your message seem to concur that there are impassable barriers to any sort of scientific study.

Damien S., Australia, 12 November 2014

I must have misunderstood. The impression I got from reading the article was that the dark sector only came into "existence" in order to balance the big bang universe with the real observable universe. I didn't realise that, unlike the planet Vulcan, for which there was no evidence for its existence, there is actual evidence for the dark sector. I apologise and will look into it.

John Hartnett responds

Damien, thanks for your further comments. Firstly there was evidence for the planet Vulcan, that is why it was suggested. In all instances where dark matter has been suggested there was or is evidence; observational and/or experimental evidence. It is the interpretation of that evidence that is under question. And the point of this article is that it is largely (but not totally) due to a prior commitment to the big bang cosmogony (origin of the Universe) that drives the search in the dark, i.e. dark sector physics.

Damien S., Australia, 11 November 2014

Just like the theory of evolution, the big bang theory requires a lot of storytelling to make sense. But it's all assumed to be true without the slightest bit of evidence to justify such conclusions.

John Hartnett responds

I agree with your sentiments but there is evidence. It is just that once they have donned their cosmic evolutionary glasses all evidence is interpreted through their worldview. The same evidence could be equally well interpreted through a biblical creation worldview. So they justify their conclusions alright because all the big bang believer can see in the evidence is what they have assumed in the first instance. It's circular reasoning.

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