Friday, April 04, 2014

[Science] Getting Physical

It seems science -- physics in particular -- is on a bit of a roll. Not only was the Higgs Boson located a while back (almost immediately after I chided scientists for having so much trouble doing so), but now it looks like gravity waves have been located, lending credence to the Theory of Inflation. What do these things mean?

The discovery of the Higgs goes a long way towards validating something called the Standard Model, which predicts the existence of a specific zoo of particles/forces. Every particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model had been found except Higgs -- now it's complete, except for that pesky force Gravity which nobody understands. But at least we can have a pretty high level of confidence in the Standard Model now.

The existence of gravity waves (yet to be confirmed, but confidence is high) supports the Theory of Inflation. As near as I can tell, Inflation is essentially the first thing the occurred after existence began. It turns out that our friend gravity can, in certain circumstances, work backwards -- it repels instead of attracts. At the instant of creation it was in repel mode and kickstarted the universe into expansion. Then at some point repel mode ended and the expansion of the universe has ever since been coasting along on the leftover of that early repulsion. There is a tentative implication from all this that the universe is quite literally something from nothing. Essentially, gravity is negative and matter is positive so they cancel each other out and mathematically a universe full of stuff that cancels to zero is no different from non-existence. Go figure. (An explanation from the horses mouth, physicist Alan Guth, is here).

What neither of these things do is explain the Darkness -- Dark Matter and Dark Energy, i.e. most of everything.

As we look around at the motion of things in the universe we realize that it behaves as if there is a lot more stuff that we can see; many times more matter than we can locate. So we decide to call this missing stuff Dark Matter. It must be out there, but we can't find it. Our Standard Model with it's hidden diva, the Higgs Boson, doesn't offer an explanation.

Inflation seems to say the expansion of the universe is coasting on the leftover push from the reverse gravity of Inflation, but it's not coasting. Oh it seemed to be coasting for a while, but now it's accelerating faster and faster. There is the idea that it coasted for a while but then something else began inflating it again. If Inflation isn't pushing it anymore what is? We have to invent something called Dark Energy that is all over, everywhere, but we can't see it or feel it or measure it independent of looking at the entirety of the universe. It is like a great ghost of existence.

These Dark things are really just shorthand for saying "The universe isn't acting like it's supposed to, and we have no bloody idea why." This is not a new phenomenon. This is what the medievals dealt with when they discovered magnetism -- objects moving for no good reason. In the past we might have assigned demons or spirits as the cause or possible some balance-of-nature sort of concept, now we just say it's Dark Stuff. For an interesting take on how humans respond to the unseen, see this article in Nautilus Magazine.

The bottom line for our era of science seems to be that while we have discovered more knowledge than any other era, we have been even better are discovering what we don't know. We have revealed ignorance faster than we have gained understanding. Much faster.

Tangential: The reboot of the legendary TV show Cosmos is underway. Carl Sagan has been replaced by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is very good -- genial and clear spoken and calmly enthusiastic. I prefer him to Sagan. He was an excellent choice. The show so far is a mixed bag. They have come up with some clear exposition of ideas and beautiful visual explanations, but they have completely accepted convetional scientific dogma, almost to the point of arrogance, and they have been way off base about some things. It's a good and entertaining show and I will continue to watch it, but in terms of influence a new generation of scientists, as the original series is known for, I would expect Through the Wormhole will probably be the one the next generation looks back on fondly.