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Everything About Nothing

December 10, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Universe seems to be getting darker. By dark here I mean more mysterious and less well understood. Of course the fact that we now realise how little we know is itself progress because knowing 90% about 10% of the universe is actually better than knowing 80% about it all – but not even realising that what you think is everything is really just a small part.

If my statement above is confusing, here is an explanation of what I mean. When I first started my interest in astronomy we thought that we understood most of the material in the universe. Although there was a problem with missing mass going back many years it wasn’t considered likely to be the source of new forms of matter or fundamentally new phenomena.

Then it became apparent that there was a lot of extra mass which influenced other “normal” mass gravitationally but wasn’t detectable any other way. That was known as dark matter and we still aren’t sure exactly what it is even though it makes up about a quarter of the total mass/energy of the universe.

That was bad. Really bad. But since then its got a lot worse! More recently it was discovered that the expansion rate of the universe is increasing and this is attributed to a phenomenon called “dark energy”. This seems to currently make up about 70% of the mass of the universe. Do some maths and you’ll see that only leaves about 5% which is the material (atoms, photons, etc) which we do understand (well mostly understand anyway because there are plenty of mysteries regarding even these).

But wait, there’s more. The latest weird discovery is something called “dark flow”. This was first discovered last year and supported by a bigger study this year. The two studies showed that clusters of galaxies (with 800 in the first and 1400 in the second) are all moving in one particular direction in the sky.

So what’s going on here? From a situation where the universe was just quietly getting on with its steady expansion (which itself is an idea less than 100 years old because before that it was assumed the universe was static) we now have mysterious mass concentrations, something weird causing accelerated expansion, and huge areas of space moving because of some unknown effect. If it wasn’t so weird and interesting it would be very frustrating!

There is one thing I should emphasise here before finishing. These admitted deficiencies in cosmological understanding should not be used as a reason to believe pseudoscientific, supernatural, or new-age alternatives. Knowing enough about reality to realise that there is a lot more to learn is infinitely better than knowing so little that you don’t even know how ignorant you are.

I’ve had believers in non-scientific theories say that these gaps in understanding somehow support their ideas of gods, spirits or mysterious psychic forces. They don’t. Science dares to make predictions which can be easily checked and that’s why these mysteries become apparent. Alternative world views, like religion, are so amorphous that they can’t be tested so their deficiencies never become apparent.

Going back to my comparison of numbers at the start of this entry. Astronomers used to know almost everything about what they knew existed. Unfortunately there turned out to be a lot more that they didn’t even know existed. Maybe science knows a lot about only a small part of the universe but that’s a lot better than knowing everything about nothing!

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