Stars Shine, But Dark Matter Holds Departments Together

I once considered becoming an astrophysicist. I abandoned that dream after performing a very brief financial analysis and a realistic appraisal of my mathematical aptitude, but I never lost my passion for the vast majority of the universe that most people ignore. Living in a place where city lights shroud starry nights hasn’t been easy for the astronomer in me, but I’ve found ways to adapt and still enjoy the hobby. Besides, there are valuable lessons to be learned from any pursuit despite (or because of) the challenges.   

Few people realize that, when we look at the night sky with the naked eye or even with sophisticated and powerful telescopes, we only see a tiny fraction of the matter that holds our galaxy together. Even when we scrutinize other galaxies with massive telescope arrays in every available bandwidth, we never find enough mass to hold a galaxy together. This discrepancy between a galaxy’s gravitational influence and a galaxy’s visible matter led to the theory of dark matter, a concept that has gained the endorsement of most astrophysicists even though the actual physics remains a bit murky. Without dark matter, galaxies as we know them wouldn’t exist. In other words, those stars that shine so big and bright deep in the heart of Texas would likely be a lot less impressive without the gravitational influence of dark matter. Physicists love particles, and one particle theorized to account for dark matter is called the weakly interacting massive particle (aka WIMP). Now, when astrophysicists aren’t busy telling jokes about Uranus, they are no doubt designing t-shirts that say things like, “WIMPs hold the universe together.”

Like a galaxy, our academic radiology departments have bright stars. We know these stars as the luminaries who are writing papers and textbooks, getting grants, giving lectures around the world, editing journals, and engaging in similar high-profile activities everywhere but where they work.Enlightened leaders know that alone, these stars cannot keep our radiology departments together. Like galaxies, our departments need something akin to dark matter.

Unfortunately, departmental dark matter is as easy to overlook as astronomical dark matter. I’m sure we can all think of someone who inspires and motivates others despite lacking title, reputation, or recognition proportional to their influence. That person is dark matter. If I had to assign such an individual a particle name, I would refer to them as a weakly appreciated massively-influential person (aka WAMP). Just as WIMPs provide the force needed to hold a galaxy’s stars together, WAMPs stabilize our departments and allow our academic stars to shine brighter. They do this by working hard, by projecting a positive attitude, by acting in a collegial and collaborative manner, and by sharing, rather than by hording and devouring, resources.

Radiology leaders adore stars and want to keep them in their departments. Traditionally, leaders have thought that the key to keeping stars is to feed them—more time, more money, more prestige, more recognition, and more resources. But at some point, massive stars evolve into black holes, and the rest of the department suffers. To think that a department can continue to keep the stars without acknowledging and supporting the departmental dark matter is fallacy.

So, the next time you get away from the city lights, look up and remember that, while those big bright stars are pretty to behold, it’s all the stuff that you are not seeing that is really holding our galaxy, and our departments, together.

John R. Leyendecker, MD

Professor and Vice Chairman of Academic Affairs Department of Radiology

UT Southwestern Medical Center

Chair, ARRS Scientific and Innovation Committee

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