We call dark matter dark matter, because of the way it acts on galaxies, but why do we look at dark energy as an energy? With $E = m c^2$, can't dark energy be mass as well? Why dont we look at dark energy as a mass, in the same way as we look at dark matter as being a missing mass (as halo around galaxies)?


1 Answer 1


Since relativistic physics almost always takes units of $c = 1$, there is no difference between units of energy density and mass density. Conceptually, however, the gravitational charge is energy, not mass.

In general relativity, a perfect fluid has no viscuous shear stresses and no heat flux, and can be described by the stress-energy tensor $T^{\mu\nu} = (\rho + p)u^\mu u^\nu + pg^{\mu\nu}$, where $\rho$ is density, $p$ is pressure, and $u^\mu$ is the fluid four-velocity. In the case of vanishing pressure, the result is called a dust, and is appropriate for modeling cold dark matter, galaxies on the cosmological scale, etc. On the other hand, a radiation fluid has $\rho = 3p$, and is appropriate for modeling incoherent electromagnetic radiation, or a fluid made of strongly relativistic particles (e.g., hot dark matter), and so forth.

Thus, in the specific context of cosmology, the matter-dominated regime has $p\sim 0$ and radiation-dominated regime has $p\sim\rho/3$. Note that in the latter case, the fluid particles have zero (or at least negligible) mass. In-between, we can talk about a fluid of particles that are not strongly relativistic, and hence have some mass.

On the other hand, the standard model of dark energy is a cosmological constant, which is equivalent to a perfect fluid $p = -\rho$. It does not fit into the above scale; it is not matter in the above sense, nor is radiation, nor anything in-between. Furthermore, it has the peculiar property of being exactly the same in every local inertial frame. This frame-independence enables us to think of the cosmological constant as an intrinsic energy density of spacetime, but it also makes it inappropriate to think of it as a collection of fluid particles that have some rest frame.

For your purposes, this important because $E = mc^2$ is only valid in a rest frame.

  • $\begingroup$ So the formula says that mass equals energy, but the concepts dont fit the formula? Something tells me i need to read your post every 3 hours for a few days, and it will somehow sink in, but right now it hasnt yet $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ You can apply the formula to find a mass density if you like, but the point was only that unlike the previous cases, you can't decompose dark energy into a collection of massive particles zipping about. $\endgroup$
    – Stan Liou
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 16:33

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