It has been twenty years since we coined the phrase NFW halo to describe the cuspy halos that emerge from dark matter simulations of structure formation. Since that time, observations have persistently contradicted this fundamental prediction of the cold dark matter cosmogony. There have, of course, been some theorists who cling to the false hope that somehow it is the data to blame and not a shortcoming of the model.

That this false hope has persisted in some corners for so long is a tribute to the power of ideas over facts and the influence that strident personalities wield over the sort objective evaluation we allegedly value in science. This history is a bit like this skit by Arsenio Hall. Hall is pestered by someone calling, demanding Thelma. Just substitute “cusps” for “Thelma” and that pretty much sums it up.

All during this time, I have never questioned the results of the simulations. While it is a logical possibility that they screwed something up, I don’t think that is likely. Moreover, it is inappropriate to pour derision on one’s scientific colleagues just because you disagree. Such disagreements are part and parcel of the scientific method. We don’t need to be jerks about it.

But some people are jerks about it. There are some – and merely some, certainly not all – theorists who make a habit of pouring scorn on the data for not showing what they want it to show. And that’s what it really boils down to. They’re so sure that their models are right that any disagreement with data must be the fault of the data.

This has been going on so long that in 1996, George Efstathiou was already making light of it in his colleagues, in the form of the Frenk Principle:

“If the Cold Dark Matter Model does not agree with observations, there must be physical processes, no matter how bizarre or unlikely, that can explain the discrepancy.”

There are even different flavors of the Strong Frenk Principle:

1: “The physical processes must be the most bizarre and unlikely.”
2: “If we are incapable of finding any physical processes to explain the discrepancy between CDM models and observations, then observations are wrong.”

In the late ’90s, blame was frequently placed on beam smearing. The resolution of 21 cm data cubes at that time was typically 13 to 30 arcseconds, which made it challenging to resolve the shape of some rotation curves. Some but not all. Nevertheless, beam smearing became the default excuse to pretend the observations were wrong.

This persisted for a number of years, until we obtained better data – long slit optical spectra with 1 or 2 arcsecond resolution. These data did show up a few cases where beam smearing had been a legitimate concern. It also confirmed the rotation curves of many other galaxies where it had not been.

So they made up a different systematic error. Beam smearing was no longer an issue, but longslit data only gave a slice along the major axis, not the whole velocity field. So it was imagined that we observers had placed the slits in the wrong place, thereby missing the signature of the cusps.

This was obviously wrong from the start. It boiled down to an assertion that Vera Rubin didn’t know how to measure rotation curves. If that were true, we wouldn’t have dark matter in the first place. The real lesson of this episode was to never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance. People believed one thing about the data quality when it agreed with their preconceptions (rotation curves prove dark matter!) and another when it didn’t (rotation curves don’t constrain cusps!)


So, back to the telescope. Now we obtained 2D velocity fields at optical resolution (a few arcseconds). When you do this, there is no where for a cusp to hide. Such a dense concentration makes a pronounced mark on the velocity field.

Velocity fields of the inner parts of zero stellar mass disks embedded in an NFW halo (left panel) and a pseudo-isothermal (ISO) halo (right panel). The velocity field is seen under an inclination angle of 60°, and a PA of 90°. The boxes measure 5 × 5 kpc2. The vertical minor-axis contour is 0 km s−1, increasing in steps of 10 km s−1 outwards. The NFW halo parameters are c= 8.6 and V200= 100 km s−1, the ISO parameters are RC= 1 kpc and V= 100 km s−1. From de Blok et al. 2003, MNRAS, 340, 657 (Fig. 3).

To give a real world example (O’Neil et. al 2000; yes, we could already do this in the previous millennium), here is a galaxy with a cusp and one without:

The velocity field of UGC 12687, which shows the signature of a cusp (left), and UGC 12695, which does not (right). Both galaxies are observed in the same 21 cm cube with the same sensitivity, same resolution, etc.

It is easy to see the signature of a cusp in a 2D velocity field. You can’t miss it. It stands out like a sore thumb.

The absence of cusps is typical of dwarf and low surface brightness galaxies. In the vast majority of these, we see approximately solid body rotation, as in UGC 12695. This is incredibly reproducible. See, for example, the case of UGC 4325 (Fig. 3 of Bosma 2004), where six independent observations employing three distinct observational techniques all obtain the same result.

There are cases where we do see a cusp. These are inevitably associated with a dense concentration of stars, like a bulge component. There is no need to invoke dark matter cusps when the luminous matter makes the same prediction. Worse, it becomes ambiguous: you can certainly fit a cuspy halo by reducing the fractional contribution of the stars. But this only succeeds by having the dark matter mimic the light distribution. Maybe such galaxies do have cuspy halos, but the data do not require it.

All this was settled a decade ago. Most of the field has moved on, with many theorists trying to simulate the effects of baryonic feedback. An emerging consensus is that such feedback can transform cusps into cores on scales that matter to real galaxies. The problem then moves to finding observational tests of feedback: does it work in the real universe as it must do in the simulations in order to get the “right” result?

Not everyone has kept up with the times. A recent preprint tries to spin the story that non-circular motions make it hard to obtain the true circular velocity curve, and therefore we can still get away with cusps. Like all good misinformation, there is a grain of truth to this. It can indeed be challenging to get the precisely correct 1D rotation curve V(R) in a way that properly accounts for non-circular motions. Challenging but not impossible. Some of the most intense arguments I’ve had have been over how to do this right. But these were arguments among perfectionists about details. We agreed on the basic result.

There ain’t no cusp here!

High quality data paint a clear and compelling picture. The data show an incredible amount of order in the form of Renzo’s rule, the Baryonic Tully-Fisher relation, and the Radial Acceleration Relation. Such order cannot emerge from a series of systematic errors. Models that fail to reproduce these observed relations can be immediately dismissed as incorrect.

The high degree of order in the data has been known for decades, and yet many modeling papers simply ignore these inconvenient facts. Perhaps the authors of such papers are simply unaware of them. Worse, some seem to be fooling themselves through the liberal application of the Frenk’s Principle. This places a notional belief system (dark matter halos must have cusps) above observational reality. This attitude has more in common with religious faith than with the scientific method.


6 thoughts on “Ain’t no cusps here

    1. Hmmmm, would DM modelers expect a “cuspy” sort of behavior in clusters? Or are clusters just too disorganized (for lack of a better term) for that?


  1. Excellent as always. I have to introduce Frenk’s principle in my thesis, it’s just so hilarious. 🙂
    Simulation offers just an array of possible solutions, which should be eliminated by observations. Hubble already knew that (substituting simulation with theory of course). Why is it forgotten today?


    1. A good question. I think we, as a community, have fallen into the classic trap wherein some successes have been so great that we get to thinking things MUST be so. This leads to the presumption that any problem is simply a problem to be solved within that context, not a true anomaly that requires a new paradigm. We’ve believed in cold dark matter for so long that we forget – and fail to teach our students – that it remains an unconfirmed hypothesis. Much less do we hold in mind that CDM is just an auxiliary hypothesis to the FRW cosmology it was invented to save from the mismatch between mass and baryon density and the growth of large scale structure. We humans have a way of giving names to that which we don’t understand. Eventually the names become familiar to the point that we forget we don’t really understand it, and the Unexpected becomes the Known. Everybody knows we need dark matter and dark energy, yet seem to forget that we don’t really know what those are, beyond unfamiliar concepts turned familiar by a litany of repetition.

      Liked by 2 people

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