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Thursday, April 26, 2012
Outer Space ... Science ...

It’s April, and spring is in the air here in New Jersey. But during the winter months just past, the air of metaphysical mystery created by a particle physics experiment that seemingly clocked neutrino particles moving faster than light has been blown to the four winds. In the early months of this year, a review of that experiment along with the initial results of further experiments have put the mainline physicists back in control. The speed of light remains the absolute limit to all transactions and interactions in the universe. (Well, any interaction that conveys information, anyway; quantum entanglement experiments indicate that there are faster than light effects, but they can’t pass relevant information through spacetime any faster than a ray of light could; the hyper-luminal effects can only be known retroactively). 

So much for all the excitement that was created in the press by the notion that Einstein and all the other smarty-pants physicists out there haven’t really mastered the eternal mysteries after all. Ah, but just when all the New Age and Old Age mystagogues (the ‘Old Age’ ones being Baby Boom spiritual seekers — like me!!) had lost hope of besting the boffins regarding the ultimate secrets of creation, spring comes along and new scientific mysteries are in the air; this time regarding dark matter.

In a nutshell, astrophysicists observed some time ago that some wacky stuff was happening with many of the galaxies out there in the heavens. They were spinning too fast according to standard gravity theory, and should have had their exterior layers (i.e., billions of stars) cast long ago into the dark reaches of deep space. Something more — much more — than the gravitational forces from what matter we can detect in those galaxies seems to be holding them together. So, the scientists feel that the best explanation is that there is more mass than we can see; the unseeable stuff is called “dark matter“. The dark matter idea is a “retro fit”, something necessary to defend Newton and Einsteins’ basic gravity laws given the unexpected stuff happening way out there in the blue.

Thus, the astro and cosmo scientists theorize that there really is more mass out there, but it is thus far invisible to us. It doesn’t interact in any ways that we currently know how to detect (but that doesn’t mean that we will never be able to detect it; neutrinos likewise were theoretical but undetectable particles, but over the past 50 years we found new ways to detect these ghostly particles. We might eventually figure out what to look for regarding dark matter and build equipment sensitive enough to detect their weak, ghost-like interactions.)

Dark matter seems to be treated as a fact in many articles on modern cosmology. HOWEVER, a recent study indicates that dark matter is NOT needed to explain the motions of our own Milky Way. Our home galaxy now appears to have enough regular matter to explain the absolute and rotational velocities of all the stars at the galaxy edge; we don’t need new imaginary stuff like dark matter.

The troubling thing about the new study, if it holds up, is that we still observe other distant galaxies doing things that don’t seem right. So – why should they be spinning as if being swung around by dark matter, while our own galaxy swings just fine without it? Is our Milky Way really weird and exceptional? Most astrophysicists say that ours is just a run of the mill galaxy. So why do things seem to be moving in predictable ways here at home, given what we know about all the regular matter in our galaxy; and yet things seem to be moving too fast in distant galaxies? You’d think that if dark matter really exists, it would treat all galaxies the same, including ours. Maybe those distant galaxies can be explained after all by looking a little harder for regular matter, and by adjusting the laws of gravity just a bit.

There were problems with the dark matter (missing mass) theory, even before the new study: First, you need a whole LOT of the stuff, 5x times the existing regular mass observed in the universe, from detectable stuff like electrons and protons and neutrons and other exotic baryons and mesons (and black holes too!!). Oh yea, and also the now-detectable neutrinos, which were finally found to have tiny amounts of mass (there are so many of them out there, you can’t ignore their contribution). Second, the missing mass in other galaxies (dark matter, allegedly) can’t be evenly distributed, spread around like a gas throughout the voids, as with neutrinos. Dark matter needs to be clumpy, accumulating around galaxies. (But OK, most regular mass, other than neutrinos, clumps up; that’s just what the force of gravity does).

However, despite the problems with dark matter, there are scientists who criticize this study, especially regarding the assumptions that it uses. Some call these assumptions the study’s “Achilles heel”.
 
And yet, if those assumptions hold up, this study could be part of a trend that creates a crisis in physics, regarding our understanding of mass, space-time, and gravity. It might be that we don’t have it down as well as we think.
  
But never fear, the math-wielding theorists are already floating a range of exotic alternatives. Roughly speaking, some of them postulate gravitational side-effects that ramp up only over very large distances. Gravity force between any two bits of matter generally depends on distance, getting weaker according to the square of the distance. But Modified Gravity Laws would tweek the basic equations put forth by Newton and Einstein (general relativity), adding additional factors that keep gravity from weakening so quickly as distances become cosmic in scale. Maybe gravity forces kind of level out as you get into hundreds of thousands of light years.

Or maybe there are parallel universes existing in dimensions beyond the well know “fab 4” dimensions that we live with (height, width, depth and time). These might “leak” extra gravity into ours in certain situations. Or perhaps mass is hiding from us in some of those extra spatial dimensions that M-superstring theory needs. (However, the CERN Large Hadron Colider thus far hasn’t seen any evidence of hyper-dimensional energy interactions, despite looking for it; neither did the recently shut down Fermilab Tevatron accelerator).

Another contender for “the next generation of gravity” is called Loop Quantum Gravity. In a nutshell (one that is not very accurate), loop gravity sees the effects of mass and energy particles as “crumpled spacetime quanta”, existing amidst regular little bits (quanta) of space-time, which all link up and interact across broad areas. So, instead of there being nothing but vacuum versus energy and matter particles in the universe, the world is really just a lot of tiny space-time zones, some crumpled (making up matter and energy) and others more relaxed (making up the vacuum, which as we already know isn’t just a lot of nothing; we now know about the vacuum energy that causes virtual electrons and positrons to continually bubble up and instantly annihilate, even in a space devoid of all normal matter and energy). All these little bits of reality are woven together in a huge web of interactions (the ‘loops’ in loop gravity), through which space, time, gravity, other energy fields/particles and mass all emerge.

(Sounds pretty New Age to me!!)

So, cosmic weirdness and scientific uncertainty is still in the air, along side the pleasant breezes of spring. Humility, along side hope for humankind’s deeper understanding of our universe (and maybe eventually ourselves), springs eternal !

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:23 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Most likely it’s because I know so little of what you are talking about here that I tend to say to myself, at some point there will be a massive breakthrough by humans who will learn to move from dimension to dimension. Then all these things (such as you mention here–dark matter or no dark matter and all its various possibilities, very weak or leveling out at some point, etc.), all these things will seem just plain natural and the strangeness of it all will seem just plain primitive.

    From another standpoint, I find myself thinking that if humans learn to move from dimension to dimension, it may be that they then will of necessity be a different “breed” of humans. The “breed” we have now simply is not capable of such movements. Humans will have to evolve to some point where such types of things seem normal and humans are capable of such movements.

    I also find myself thinking that at the rate technology is moving, perhaps that time won’t be too far in the future. Who is to say? On the other hand perhaps to *stay* in the dimensions we have opted for on this planet requires that we limit ourselves to what we are capable of on this planet and in the dimensions appropriate to it.

    At this point who can say? Certainly not I. And on this same point to go off on a tanget, you have also set me to thinking about the whole SETI project and the attempt at communication with “aliens”, if they can be called that; perhaps intelligences from other dimensions is, albeit a longer phrase, more appropriate. Why could there not be other beings, even more farther advanced than we, in these other dimensions? And thus to communicate with them, one would have to either have evolved to where one could move from dimension to dimension or simply move there and stay there.

    I’ve tended to think that any time one talks about movement of galaxies farther and farther out into space and dark matter one of necessity is speaking about other dimensions and any hope of learning about them (to say nothing of communicating with them, which is something I’ve added here) would require that we enter those other dimensions, thus changing our existence from the dimension we are in at present to a different dimension. Thus those capable of doing that would then become (what’s the right word here?) invisible, unknown, incapable of communicating with those in this dimension. And we’d be left asking, where did they go? They “disappeared.”

    Well, I guess in the end for me it’s better if I stay with the concept you started with–“springtime in the universe” because, while our springtime has been topsy turvey from what it usually has been, it has been really and truly beautiful. It’s nice just to sit and watch the many and varied greens of nature, the slow growth of spring that started off with a bang but has ended with a slowness that is truly beautiful. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 27, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

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