It can be unsettling to realize that only five percent of the universe is made of the kind of matter we know and understand—everything from the planets and stars, to trees and animals and your dining room table.
Roughly one-quarter is dark matter. This is thought to knit the galaxies together, and has been called the "scaffolding" of the universe, but we've never detected it directly. Scientists believe they can see dark matter's traces in the way that galaxies rotate, but they still have no idea what it is. (Most of the universe, about 70 percent, is dark energy, a mysterious force that permeates space and time. It's even less well-understood than dark matter.)
Confirming dark matter's existence would change humankind's perspective on the universe. 2016 was a year of dark matter disappointments, as big searches came up empty. Most are looking for WIMPs—weakly interacting massive particles, the leading contender for a dark matter particle.
2017 might just be the year we finally catch one. And if we don't, well, it may be that our best theories about dark matter are wrong—that we're looking in the wrong places, with the wrong instruments. Maybe dark matter, whatever it is, will turn out to be even weirder and more surprising than anyone has so far predicted. Maybe it's not a WIMP, but some other bizarre kind of particle.
Then there's the outside possibility that dark matter doesn't exist, that it's an illusion. If that's the case, we'll have to consider whether we've been fundamentally misreading the universe's clues.
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