Galactic collisions: What Jorge Moreno’s research on dark matter can help us discover about making life better on Earth

A person with short brown hair wears a blue dotted shirt and smiles at the camera.
Pomona College Professor Jorge Moreno published a paper that offers new insights on galaxies that lack dark matter in the Nature Astronomy Journal Feb. 14. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

Understanding the complexities of the universe? That’s a tall order for most people. 

But Jorge Moreno, an assistant professor of astronomy at Pomona College, isn’t just helping discover alternate forms of galaxies across the universe — they’re also using those discoveries to think more deeply about life right here on Earth. 

Moreno is first author credited on a paper that offers new insights on galaxies that lack dark matter, published in the Nature Astronomy Journal Feb. 14.

For the last half century, astronomers internationally have understood that galaxies always contain dark matter, an important process of their formation and function. But in 2018, Princeton University postdoctoral fellow Shany Danieli and her research group discovered what they believed to be a galaxy without any dark matter. 

The discovery threw many astronomers into a bit of an “existential crisis,” Moreno said. Many discounted Danieli’s work, while others proposed getting rid of popular black matter theories altogether. 

Moreno, a close friend of Danieli, used their sabbatical last year to run image simulations of different galaxies. On Dec. 23, 2020, Moreno discovered what they believed to be seven simulated galaxies that had no dark matter. 

Moreno said that they felt pressure to be entirely certain of their findings. With Daneli and a number of co-authors, they set out to publish a paper on the seven galaxies. Moreno described their findings as “somewhat conservative,” emphasizing that the common understanding is still true for the vast majority of galaxies, but there are some outliers. 

The paper that Moreno and Daneli produced has instigated new conversations. For one, Moreno says that based on the paper findings, they predict around 30 percent of massive galaxies should have at least one smaller galaxy orbiting it, known as a satellite galaxy, that does not have dark matter. 

“I’m hoping I’m right on this one, but we’ll see,” they said, adding that the new James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched in December, may verify or falsify their simulations. “Only the universe will tell.”

Moreno also emphasized the social implications of their research. They are currently writing a new opinion-based paper on astromimicry, an astronomical take on biomimicry, a practice of applying phenomena in the natural world to social life. 

“[The universe] can inspire or give us ideas on how to organize ourselves,” Moreno said, nodding toward their own classroom structure, where they take input from students to organize a safe space, especially for marginalized students. “I think we just need to pay attention, we need to look up.” 

In previous understandings, when massive galaxies and satellites collided, the satellite either merged with the larger galaxy or was destroyed, Moreno said. However, their new discovery demonstrates that instead, these satellites may survive and simply lose their dark matter in the process.

Moreno drew a parallel to sociological phenomena.

“Sometimes we’re told [as marginalized people that] your option is to behave like the people in the majority, the dominant culture, speak like a white person, be assertive, or you’re completely excluded and destroyed,” they said. “Rather than assimilating or getting destroyed, [these surviving satellite galaxies] confronted the massive galaxy … and they paid a price, they lost their dark matter, but they’re surviving, they’re thriving.”

Moreno said they personally connect with this metaphor as someone with Indigenous roots. 

“I don’t speak any Indigenous language, my name and my gender are European,” they said. “And I don’t know my customs, my cuisine, my music, but I’m still here, right? I’m thriving.”

With this connection in mind, Moreno named their seven simulated planets after the seven clans of the Cherokee nation: Bird, Blue, Deer, Long Hair, Paint, Wild Potato, and Wolf. Moreno’s Cherokee friend, Doug Ingram, received approval from tribal elders before formalizing the decision. 

Moreno’s nod to Indigenous history underscored the emphasis they put on decolonization in their work.

“[Decolonizing is] dismantling those false boundaries. It’s anywhere from gender to race to borders to the separation between humanities and the sciences. And the fact that everything is contained in the universe; art, music, history, all of it, not just STEM,” they said. “The moment we pay attention to our full humanity, we can actually do better science.”

“The moment we pay attention to our full humanity, we can actually do better science.”

Jorge Moreno

Besides the scientific contributions, Moreno hopes that their research will inspire fundamental change in the culture of the field, rethinking pillars from scientific understandings of dark matter to social power dynamics within the field.

“I think a united theme in my research and my pedagogy is that discovery is a human right,” they said, underscoring that historically, STEM fields have been weaponized and gatekept. “I’m reclaiming that space for me and for my ancestors and for my students.”

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