ΛCDM and MOND compared

One of the frustrating things about ΛCDM and MOND as competing scientific paradigms is that where one is elegant and predictive, the other tends to be mute. This makes a straightforward comparison difficult. Nevertheless, I make a stab at it in the table below.

What conclusions one draws about the virtues and flaws of each theory depends on how one chooses to weigh the data. Roughly speaking, the large scale data - clusters of galaxies, large scale structure formation, and the cosmic microwave background - favor ΛCDM, while galaxy scale data generally favor MOND. Put like this, ΛCDM sounds like the better bet, with galaxy scale "problems" being minor details that will eventually get sorted out. Having worked on these problems for over a decade, I can only say it aint that easy.

The table below gives a summary of the situation as I write a review article with Benoit Famaey in late 2011. Serious flaws can be found with both theories, even in their regime of presumptive superority. Still, the more important issue is how we choose to weigh the various lines of evidence, which is an entirely human and subjective exercise.

Observational tests of ΛCDM and MOND
Observational TestSuccessfulPromisingUnclearProblematic
Spiral Galaxies
galaxy rotation curve shapesXX
surface brightness ~ Σ ~ a2 X X
galaxy rotation curve fits X X
fitted M*/L X X
Tully-Fisher Relation
baryon based X X
slope X X
normalization X X
no size nor Σ dependence X X
no intrinsic scatter X X
Galaxy Disk Stability
maximum surface density X X
spiral structure in LSBGs X X
thin & bulgeless disks X X
Interacting Galaxies
tidal tail morphology X X
dynamical friction X X
tidal dwarfs X X
Spheroidal Systems
star clusters X X
ultrafaint dwarfs X X
dwarf Spheroidals X X
ellipticals X X
Faber-Jackson relation X X
Clusters of Galaxies
dynamical mass X X
mass-temperature slope X X
velocity (bulk & collisional) X X
Gravitational Lensing
strong lensing X X
weak lensing X X
expansion history X X
geometry X X
big bang nucleosynthesis X X
Structure Formation
galaxy power spectrum X X
empty voids X X
early structure X X
Background Radiation
first:second acoustic peak X X
second:third acoustic peak X X
detailed fit X X
early re-ionization X X


As I said above, one's take on the evidence is subjective, so here I give a brief discussion of each subject in the table. I don't expect everyone to agree with my evaluation of the evidence, but I do hope you will allow the evidence to challenge any preconceived notions you may have.
Spiral Galaxy Rotation Curves
The rotation curves of spiral galaxies are a clear success of MOND. They are also problematic for ΛCDM, which predicts none of the observed systematics. One can always fit rotation curves with dark matter, because one is using three parameters (a minimum of two to describe the dark matter halo plus the stellar M*/L) to describe data that only requires one parameter (MOND with fixed acceelration constant a0 but M*/L differing from galaxy to galaxy). Such fits are degenerate and do nothing to explain what is observed.

The Tully-Fisher Relation
MOND has strong requirements for the quantitative details of the Tully-Fisher Relation. So far, the observations are bang on these expectations. In contrast, ΛCDM does not predict the Tully-Fisher relation per se, but rather an analogous relation for total (predominantly dark) mass and rotation velocity as the virial radius, well beyond the reach of observations. Mapping that to the data can be done, but not in a satisfactory, predictive way. Tortuous might be more descriptive.

Disk Stability
The stability of dynamically cold, rotationally supported disk galaxies like the Milky Way was one of the launching points of dark matter. Dark matter halos were needed to stabilize disks, as a bare Newtonian disk was subject to rapid self destruction through the bar instability. Problem is, too much dark halo suppresses disk instabilities too much. In low surface brightness galaxies (LSBGs), which are clearly dark matter dominated, we nevertheless see bars and spiral structure - features that occur naturally as the result of disk self gravity. That makes more sense in MOND, which provides the required stability, but doesn't overdo it - disks of all surface brightnesses are self gravitating. MOND also provides a natural explanation for the onserved maximum in the surface brightnesses of disks: it can only provide stability in the MOND regime defined by a0 = G Σmax. In contrast, we could stabilize disks of arbitrary surface density with dark matter simply by increasing the dark matter density as needed. The observed scale Σmax is not native to ΛCDM and has to be inserted into models by hand.

Interacting Galaxies
At this juncture, simulations in both paradigms have demonstrated the ability to form tidal tails as the result of galaxy interactions. However, I would give ΛCDM clear preference in terms of the dynamical friction required to merge galaxies. Dark matter halos act like big catcher's mitts to absorb all the orbital energy and angular momentum that has to be transferred for colliding galaxies to stick. It is not clear to me how this works in MOND: where does the energy go? On the other hand, MOND gives a natural explanation for the mass discrepancies observed in tidal dwarfs formed in galaxy collisions. In contrast, in ΛCDM the collision should be very efficient at segregating dark and baryonic mass, and tidal dwarfs should be devoid of dark matter.

Spheroidal Galaxies
Star clusters and giant elliptical galaxies are both made mostly of stars and reside predominantly in the Newtonian regime, so neither make particularly good probes of either ΛCDM or MOND. It would have been very natural for globular clusters to have formed in the first minihalos, but apparently it didn't happen that way, and purely baryonic processes were involved. There are more subtle effects that can be endlessly debated (and are). The dwarf spheroidal satellites to the Milky Way and Andromeda, on the other hand, provide strong tests of both theories. It is unclear whether the mass distribution in these dwarfs is consistent with ΛCDM. Similarly, these objects fall close to where they should in MOND, but detailed fits are more problematic, requiring a rather specific variation of anisotropy. The ultrafaint dwarfs (including Ursa Minor and Draco) are particularly problematic for MOND. If current data are correct, then these systems must be in the throes of tidal distruption by their host. The situation is also weird in ΛCDM, where it is natural for such systems to be subsumed into the host, but where detailed simulations show that the stellar content of the dwarfs is well protected by its dark matter coccoon and resist disruption till the bitter end. The situation is further complicated by the missing satellite problem and the various profered solutions.

Clusters of Galaxies
Clusters of galaxies are a clear win for ΛCDM in terms of their overall mass. MOND fails (by a factor of 2 to 3) to explain the masses of clusters. That is, one needs some form of unseen mass in clusters, even with MOND. The famous bullet cluster is merely a special case of a general rule (see, e.g., the review by Sanders & McGaugh). However, it is an overinterpretation to suppose that this falsifies MOND: there is nothing about clusters that requires the unseen mass to be non-baryonic cold dark matter. (Epistomology is terrible here - any unseen mass - "dark matter" that might be anything - often gets conflated with the non-baryonic cold dark matter that we require in ΛCDM.) In the context of MOND, it is perhaps more accurate to say that MOND suffers a missing baryon problem in clusters (though conceivably massive neutrinos might also play a role). I don't like that idea, but it is a logical possibility. Indeed, it has happened in the past - we used to think the mass discrepancy in clusters was of order ~100, not the current ~6. That was before we realized most of the baryons in clusters were in the intracluster medium rather than the stars in galaxies. So there were, historically, at least two missing mass problems in clusters, one of which was the missing baryons that are now known in the X-ray gas. Indeed, ΛCDM suffers a missing baryon problem of its own, which is more severe in amplitude if less troubling philosophically for a theory that has already embraced Darkness.

There are other aspects of the cluster data that actually sit better with MOND than with ΛCDM. The observed slope of the cluster mass-X-ray temperature relation is closer to the M ~ T2 expected in MOND than the M ~ T3/2 of ΛCDM. This difference is what leads us to the uncomfortable need to "preheat" the gas in clusters - an awkard situation that goes away in MOND. Additionally, the high bulk velocity of clusters and the high collision velocity of the bullet cluster itself is natural in MOND, while problematic for ΛCDM. How problematic seems to depend on who you ask and even how you pose the question.

This subject is a good example of what I mean about how we weigh the data. Whenever MOND comes up, there are people who say "bullet cluster!" as if it clearly falsified MOND and confirmed ΛCDM. A tall order for one object! But all they really mean is the need for unseen mass, which I agree is problematic for MOND. Somehow the people who are obsessed with the bullet cluster in this context are unconcerned with its problematic collision velocity. I.e., the part of the observation that agrees with our pre-existing belief gets 100% of the weight while the part of the observation that challenges it gets 0% even for the same object. Psychologists have a term for this: cognitive dissonance.

Gravitational Lensing
Lensing was for a long time a challenge to the creation of a generally covariant theory that contained MOND. Early theories tended to predict less lensing rather than more. TeVeS broke this barrier, which is a good demonstration of principle, but it also makes it hard to distinguish between dark matter and MOND. A system whose dynamics is described by MOND will have a lensing signal identical to the equivalent Newtoinan dark matter distribution.

I have little to say about the evidence here. Lensing statistics used to be considered problematic for ΛCDM, as you'd get lots of lenses as the volume of the universe increased with increasing Λ. That seems to have gone away (selection effects were particularly pernicious) or at least not be a source of concern any more. There have been claims that lensing is problematic for MOND, ranging from credible to absurd. [In the latter category was a paper claiming to falsify MOND with error bars so huge that a more appropriate interpretation was that they failed to detect the need for dark matter in any system.]

ΛCDM is cosmology, while MOND doesn't have a cosmology. Given the history of cosmology, I'm not sure that should be considered a shortcoming. But certainly ΛCDM fits the expansion history and geometry of the universe, by construction. The only objection is to the particular parameters (Ω, Λ) we're stuck with. Totally bizarre, though familiarity seems to be taking the edge off of that. The one place where it is not so obvious that ΛCDM is better is in the baryon density from big bang nucleosynthesis (BBN). BBN was arguably the first example of precision cosmology, and for decades before WMAP, it was known that Ωb h2 = 0.0125. WMAP says it is 0.02258. That's right - the baryon density basically doubled while gaining an extra significant digit. This creates a tention between the baryon density measured by fitting WMAP and that found from the 7Li abundance in low metallicity stars. Since it is widely presumed that ΛCDM is correct and that WMAP is the definitive word on everything, the 7Li abundances must somehow be wrong (most likely through some sort of mixing that exposes 7Li to thermonuclear processing). This tension does not exist in MOND - the CMB behaved as predicted for the BBN baryon density that is consistent with all of the relevant isotopes.

Structure Formation
The formation of large scale strucure is one of the success stories of ΛCDM. Simulations in this context do a nice job of growing the sort of filamentary structure that is observed in large redshift surveys. MOND has less mass to work with, but a stronger long range force. The result isn't terribly different - MOND is just a tweak of Newton after all - but it is much harder to quantify. Unlike ΛCDM, MOND structure formation is completely non-linear, and gastrophysics cannot be avoided. It is quite possible that MOND may overshoot, in the sense that it may produce too much structure for the same initial condition. That is not entirely clear as of yet, but two salient difference seem to be that MOND is more efficient at emptying out the voids and more likely to form structure early: both testable predictions.

The Cosmic Microwave Background
The CMB provides another frustrating example of irreconcilable merits. ΛCDM fits the acoustic power spectrum of the CMB very well. It did not correctly predict its shape, however. The only successful a priori predicion concerning that was by MOND, which nailed the first-to-second peak amplitude ratio. (Fitting for this is what drove up the baryon density in ΛCDM.) However, the same model that correctly predicted the second peak also predicted a third peak that is much lower than subsequently observed. ΛCDM is flexible enough to fit the observations, though if you look at the history of WMAP releases it was pretty lousy at predicting itself. On the one hand, that is a good thing: it was worthwhile to keep operating WMAP as there was new information to be gained. On the other hand, the most that should be claimed here is that ΛCDM "wins ugly" by virtue of its greater flexibility in fitting the data.

Looking back at the table above, it remains unclear to me that one or the other theory is clearly better. I can, of course, choose to apply a weighting scheme to the various observations that yields one or the other answer. That's because the table bears out the dischotomy I suspected before constructing it - some observations clearly favor ΛCDM while others clearly favor MOND.

There's whats right, and there's whats right, and never the twain shall meet.