Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Questions Than Answers

If you thought Science was just a big bag of facts, or that if Science doesn't know everything then it knows nothing at all, then I hope to enlighten you somewhat.  Science is the process of finding out which ideas are true and which are crap.

That is very hard to accept for soft-skulled people who think that all ideas are somehow equal.  Nature doesn't apologize for the fact that there exists an absolute truth, an objective reality of which Nature alone is the moderator, referee and adjudicator.   Our very subjective, fallible minds can only glimpse that reality through the rigorous discipline of scientific training in careful logical thought, painstaking observations, and tireless trial and error in which pre-judgement is necessarily suspended.

That is the nature of Science.  We may not always like the results, and often the process results in more questions than answers.  But in the long run, Science always increases our grasp of Nature's one Reality.

More questions than answers.  Such is the case with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, shared by Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess.

(In Australia, the media will make a big deal out of the fact that Brian Schmidt, though US-born, works at the Australian National University in Canberra.  Australia claims 10 Nobel Prizes, 9 in Science, one in Literature, and a further 7 Nobel Prizes (including this one) either by Australians working abroad or non-Australians  living and working in Australia.  For a country of just 21 million people, this is considered an unbelievable performance in per-capita Nobel Prizes.  It is part of the complexity of the Australian psyche that Australians meticulously keep track of these kinds of things and see them as a matter of first importance.)

The 2011 Physics prize is for observations that prove the existence of something called "Dark Energy," an evocative name for the fact that galaxies in the universe appear to be accelerating uniformly away from one another.  It is as though the universe were perched on top of a hill, and as galaxies spread out in all directions, they leave the crown of the hill and begin to roll down the slopes, picking up speed.  The fact that we haven't yet discovered the reason for Space having this particular shape doesn't prevent galaxies from behaving in this way.

Previously, astrophysicists observed that the universe was much heavier than can be accounted for by all the stars and galaxies that can be seen plus all the gas and dust seen floating around between stars and galaxies, plus everything else they can think of to include in an inventory of all matter.  The rate at which galaxies are currently moving apart indicates that the overall gravitational attraction in the universe is larger than all known matter can account for.  They hypothesized that there must therefore be more matter in an unknown form, and called it "Dark Matter."

It is now understood that matter in all forms that we know, atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, neutrinos, photons, quarks and so on, forms just 4% of the mass and energy in universe.  The rest is this Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

But before you go rejecting everything we've discovered in the last 300 years, consider this.  What was true yesterday is still true today.  Newton's equations of motion are still perfectly correct for everyday distances, speeds and times.  Einstein's Relativity, an extension  of Newtonian mechanics, is still perfectly correct for everything we've yet been able to observe. Quantum Mechanics is still the most accurate set of equations by far for predicting the behavior of atom-sized or smaller objects.  Thermodynamics is still absolutely inviolable when dealing with collections of 1000 or more atoms.  Energy is absolutely conserved in every interaction and "perpetual motion" is outlawed by the ruthless and absolute monarch of the physical universe, Nature.

Will Dark Matter matter to you?  Will Dark Energy be the lucky escape from our climate/energy dilemma?  Let me put it to you that any machine or device anyone could possibly make that will be larger than a single atom (what would you make it from otherwise?) or smaller than the Milky Way galaxy we live in, will still behave in complete accordance with the discovered principles of Nature we currently understand.

In fact, there is only one machine in existence which has a chance of working in a way that might surprise Science.  It was built in the hopes of surprising.  Although we understand exactly how it operates, the result it will have is not yet completely known.  That machine is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

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