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Let’s reel in this talk of a ‘fifth dimension’ for a second

Published Feb 10th, 2021 1:39PM EST
science news
Image: NASA, ESA, and G. Piotto (Università degli Studi di Padova); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

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  • Researchers attempting to solve the problem of dark matter have proposed a particle that can travel to an unseen fifth dimension. 
  • The work is entirely hypothetical, as it attempts to explain a type of matter that nobody has ever seen using a particle that has never been identified.
  • Proving or disproving the theory will likely take new technologies that have yet to be invented.

If you’re a science fan, you’ve probably heard a lot about dark matter in recent years. The theory of dark matter is based on the fact that calculations of the movements of galaxies and other features we can see in space don’t match up with what we think we know about the laws of the physical world. So, to better explain why the universe has played out in the way it has since the Big Bang, there must be a whole bunch of matter that we either can’t see or that we simply haven’t identified yet.

But while the idea of dark matter may answer some questions, it poses other problems as well. If there’s so much dark matter in the universe, we should be able to at least see it, but we can’t. In searching for an explanation, researchers have begun to form truly incredible theories, including the possibility that a fifth dimension exists, and that our inability to interact with that dimension is the reason that we haven’t spotted dark matter yet. Now, a team of scientists has published a paper that hypothesizes the existence of a particle that could serve as a gateway to that unseen dimension.

Unfortunately, the paper has resulted in some pretty wild headlines across the internet. Some outlets have gone so far as to suggest that scientists actually “found” a portal to the fifth dimension when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The work itself, however, is still extremely interesting.

In the paper, which was published in The European Physical Journal C, the researchers wanted to solve some problems related to the abundance of dark matter and particles known as fermions. Fermions are very small — smaller than an atom — and protons and electrons are part of this group. In an attempt to answer the questions they were studying, the scientists came up with a new theory of physics that features not just the four dimensions we know about (three dimensions of space and one dimension of time), but a fifth dimension that a certain type of particle could pass through it.

“If this heavy particle exists, it would necessarily connect the visible matter that we know and that we have studied in detail with the constituents of the dark matter, assuming that dark matter is composed out of fundamental fermions, which live in the extra dimension,” the scientists told Vice. “This is not a far-fetched idea, since we know that ordinary matter is made of fermions and that, if this extra dimension exists, they will very likely propagate into it.”

While it might not be “far-fetched” to the scientists, they’re also making some assumptions here, such as the very existence of the fifth dimension. They’re also relying on the existing theory of dark matter — that it makes up 85% of our universe and exerts a force on objects in our dimension, but we just can’t see it — and the existence of this new theoretical particle that, again, nobody has ever seen.

Put simply, there are a whole bunch of questions that need to be answered before we can even begin to determine the existence of a fifth dimension, and if any one of those theoretical building blocks isn’t real, the whole building falls down. Again, the work is interesting, but no, we didn’t find a fifth dimension and no, there isn’t a “portal” to it that we actually know about.