Archive for the ‘pure science’ Category

Great mysteries: Dark matter, dark energy, and gravity

March 13, 2007

This Sunday’s (3/11/07) NY Times Magazine has a really interesting piece titled “Out There.” It’s a sort of a recap of the current state-of-the-state of cosmologic research. You may remember I recently posted my wild hypothesis that perhaps dark matter is really what we call “consciousness,” or “the soul,” or one of those other terms that we give to things that are demonstrable but impossible (at least at this point) to understand.

I’m going to attempt to provide a synopsis of some of the key points of the article. But it’s only fair to provide the standard warning label:


Here are some of the current beliefs. Since I think it’s impossible to “know” any of this (and I think the number of reversals over the history of natural science bears my thinking out), I am going to lump “facts” and theories together.

Only about 4% of the mass of the known universe is the type of matter we are made of, our planets and stars are made of, and with which we are familiar.

About 22% of the total mass is something currently called “dark matter.”

The remaining 74% is classified as “dark energy.” This isn’t necessarily energy as we think about it but an “energy-like” substance, whatever that means.

The term “dark” in this usage has nothing to do with color or brightness. It refers to the fact that these substances, whatever they are, are nonbaryonic. They do not interact with electricity or magnetism (as far as we can tell), or with photons or electrons, and thus we are unable to “see” them. But they make up 96% of the known universe.

To paraphrase one scientist, we and all of things we know anything about are merely a bit of pollution in the universe. Most of the universe is not only something about which we know nothing but something that we can’t even be sure we know how to know anything about. Time for a cold drink yet?

Then there’s gravity. Gravity is a commonly accepted phenomenon. If you let go of that cold drink, it will fall “down” and spill. But nobody really knows why. What gravity really is remains a huge mystery, despite the fact that it has been an acknowledged phenomenon for several centuries.

The theory of gravity says that the elements of the universe should be drawing closer together based on the attraction of one mass for another. But in fact, just the opposite is happening. Enter dark energy.

Dark energy is a sort of anti-gravity force that pushes things apart. In fact, the universe appears to be expanding, which would indicate that dark energy is stronger than gravity. But no one really understands what either force is.

The universe is made up of many, many galaxies. These galaxies are spinning at a very high rate of speed which should cause the stars and their ancillary satellites to fly off farther from the core based on another principle of physics, the principle of centrifugal force.

 But that’s not happening either. Current speculation says that galaxies hold together because of dark matter. Science has detected “clouds” of dark matter around various galaxies. But once again, no one knows what dark matter is.

Einstein is best known for his “theory of general relativity.” But let’s not forget that he spent the last 30 years of his life attempting to reconcile his theory with the emerging field of quantum theory, without success. Maybe we’re just not meant to know these things. And maybe it’s best that way. It leaves room for poetry alongside science.

I love cosmology, and I struggle with my limited little brain to understand as much as I can. But I think I still prefer poetry.

Now my head hurts from all of this thinking, and I’m going to head off to bed.

One of the remaining great mysteries

February 10, 2007

I am interrupting my weekly reading of The New Yorker to bring you a bulletin. There’s a great profile in this week’s (2/12) issue of two scientist/philosophers, a married couple–Pat and Paul Churchland, professors at UCSD. It’s a really interesting piece that calls out many of the issues associated with one of the great remaining mysteries: what constitutes consciousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I disagree with many of their firmly held beliefs. They are monists; I am firmly in the dualist camp. I don’t deny that many of the elements of what we call “mind” are firmly grounded in the chemistry and biology of the brain. But I’m holding out for something else, something that’s not “physical” as we know it (more about that in a minute), something that for want of a better term I’ll call the “soul.”

My belief is firmly rooted in experience as well. I’ve had at least one out-of-body experience, and on several occasions found myself sharply aware that something in “me” was really not attached to my body. (And, no, I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of “mental illness” and have somehow managed to function for a remarkable number of decades.)

The Churchlands also don’t believe that non-human animals have language. I have seen much evidence out here in the middle of nowhere that they do. I think it’s easier to see here because I can be more closely attentive. There are fewer distractions. If you’re looking at animals, you’re looking at animals, and that’s it. There have also been quite a number of scientific studies devoted to this topic, and I believe most of them have demonstrated some degree of language in even what we would consider “the lower animals.” (And how humanly arrogant is that?)

George Lakoff did his best to reduce all human thought to biology, but he never managed to convince me. I enjoyed his books, found his work on metaphor (More Than Cool Reason) immensely useful as a poet, but think he really was all wet in  Philosophy in the Flesh.

One of the things that caught my eye in this profile was Paul Churchland’s reference to a book I have loved since I was very young, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. Most of my generation is at least minimally familiar with Heinlein because of Stranger in a Strange Land. This was a sort of rallying-cry book in the 1960s.

But Orphans is a totally different animal, a reflection of how little we know and how impossible it is to know it all. I rank it right up there with John Wynham’s novella “Rebirth” for an understanding of the great mysteries and the ability of humans to resist ideas that challenge their current knowledge.

There are other great mysteries, of course, besides consciousness. I keep returning to the questions of dark energy and dark matter. With all of our “vast” knowledge, how can we not identify and understand the composition of more than 75% of the mass and a huge portion of the energy in our universe?

Perhaps lame thought for the morning: What if dark matter is really consciousness afloat in the universe, some sort of mass/energy that infuses biologically living beings and returns to the universe after the biological death? What do you think?

Now it can be revealed: My greatest fears, part 1

February 3, 2007

The copy editor in me never shuts up. I will probably dither as I write this about whether the “m” in “My” should be capitalized in this post title. The realist in me asks, “Who cares?” But it’s like so many of those little things–someone must.

I go to great lengths to keep this blog non-political. My reasons are many. First among them is that I think there are enough things that connect us that it is worth while to avoid the things that tend to spark acrimony. I like exploring the connections rather than the divisions. But perhaps more important is the fact that I have a very low opinion of things political. My friends are all over the map ideologically. I like this. It sparks some spirited debates from time to time.

I think we have reached a very dangerous point in our society–I’m talking about the U.S. here, but I suspect that this applies on a wider world stage as well. Our leaders are now more concerned with the “politics” of the situation than with the exigencies of the moment. (Aside: Have you discovered “The Free Dictionary“? This is one of my favorite sites. The home page has wonderful puzzles and feature articles; the dictionary and thesaurus are always interesting.)

I am fortunate to have lived for more than a quarter of a century with Ben. We agree less and less on things as time goes by, but our shared experiences seem to have engendered a certain respect that lets us have some of those question-asking discussions without rancor or emnity. The most recent was last evening.

We sat and watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I had seen it before; Ben had not. It was “the director’s cut” edition, and it included some scenes that I don’t remember from the earlier version. Afterward, we engaged in a rather spirited discussion. Ben was right in observing that one rather oddball gratuitous scene contributed nothing to the movie and in fact weakened it. But then he said that Spielberg seemed to have “a rather Berkeley frame of reference.” I knew that he wasn’t referring to the Englilsh philosopher but rather to what those of us who lived in the Bay Area as semi-normal people called “the Berkeley effect.” He was talking about a particular attitude toward government and the role of government.

Ben thought the film portrayed government and particularly the military as inept. He was offended by this. I agreed with his perceptions, but I felt compelled to add that I thought the portrayal was accurate. The discussion continued for some time. Perhaps as a result, Ben dreamed of Vietnam again last night for the first time in a long time. So our discussion continued even longer as we talked about his dreams and memories with a full moon shining through our bedroom picture window.

Lord, this has gone far afield from what I intended to write about. . .But maybe there’s a reason.

My irritation with politics is that I think it gets in the way of people living sane lives. Our founding fathers never envisioned a world in which our leaders would be more concerned with self-image and personal aggrandizement than they are with the question of what is best for the country, the society. But that is the peculiar circumstance in which we find ourselves.

My previous post about loving the landscape generated a large amount of interest, including some thoughtful comments from Heath and Phil about things that really bug them. Those things bug me, too.

But I’m convinced that these issues will never be resolved while we are raising generations of children who think that milk, eggs, meat, and produce come from grocery stores, that the figures in a cartoon or video game series are more compelling than the children across the street (or across the world, for that matter), and that instant gratification of a perceived desire is the highest form of pleasure known to humans.

One of the things that I’m enjoying the most in my current lifestyle is the reality of it all. I burned the beejasus out of one of my fingers this morning on the living room stove. I suspect it’s a third-degree burn nearly to the bone. I’d post a picture here, but for me to display my would properly would look like an obscene gesture, which doesn’t seem appropriate to my audience. So you can imagine for yourself.

But I am having to relearn about heat and cold, want and satiety, how important a particular need is: Is it worth a half-day on the road, three gallons of gasoline, etc., etc., etc.?

Now I must abandon this rambling to go fix dinner, food that my great-grandmother would have recognized. I’m going to do my best not to add a cut finger to my burn.

Blackberries, bread, the joy of science, and other randomata

February 1, 2007

This post will probably make my friend Phil unhappy again, but I hope he’ll forgive me.

It’s been a busy two days. Yesterday I spent all day going down to Waldport for my writers’ group meeting. That was fun. Tuesday is my day for me. The weather was gorgeous, the beaches lovely, and all in all it left me feeling rested and refreshed. Today was a different matter.

I started bread mid-morning, and things didn’t go right from the start. I know where I fouled it up. I proofed the yeast in water that was just too warm. When I looked at it, I knew that, but I used it anyway. And it worked, sort of, but it’s not up to the standard I’m used to. I’m sitting here waiting for the timer bell to see how dreadful it really is. If it’s too bad, I’ll go bonk moles on the head with it.

But while the bread was rising (or in this case not rising very well) I went out and worked on the area behind the house that’s been so neglected. That’s where the blackberries come in, and the part that will probably upset Phil.

As I may have mentioned, we have three separate and distinct forms of blackberries here: mountain berries, Himalayas, and ground berries. I love the taste of blackberries. I buy blackberry yogurt, blackberry scones, make blackberry pies and cobblers, and so on.

But I think how you feel about blackberry bushes is really dependent on where you live. I live on a hundred acres of subtropical rain forest. We had just an inch shy of 100 inches of rain last year. I have seen blackberry bushes put on as much as 6 feet of new growth on a single runner in a day. Keeping them under control is a major problem. If you don’t keep them under control, they quickly take over and suffocate everything else.

A friend of mine who lives in eastern Oregon (where they get about one-tenth the rain we do) once wrote me proudly that he had trellised the blackberries in his yard. After I picked myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, I wrote him back a sort of smart-aleck note that I suspect insulted him. But the truth of the matter is that here the only way you can really pick berries in quantity is to throw a piece of plywood across the front of the mound of bushes and walk up on it to get to where the really good berries are. The blackberry bushes suffer from this for at least an hour and half. Then they grow another six feet.

But the worst are the ground berries. They crawl along the ground taking root every few inches, or send a runner root snaking out 4-5 feet with a bud every few inches that will grow into a new plant. So I spent most of the afternoon pulling these plants and roots out of the duff in my little garden area behind the house. I killed a lot of blackberries today, or at least I will have if we actually get them hauled away before the root at the edge of the golf course/meadow.

I sat up late last night to hear the last of my “Joy of Science” lectures and discovered another reason that SETI research my not succeed that’s sort of related to the one Brent pointed out. Any intelligent life able to communicate would quickly become bored with radio technology and switch to something more advanced. So there might be a very narrow window in time for all of those radio signals to succeed.

I don’t know if you’ve ever even heard of The Teaching Company, but they’re willing to teach you something on almost any topic you want to know about. These are individual courses offered on CD or DVD or both, depending on the importance of visuals to the course. The courses rang in length from 12 half-hour lectures to 84 half-hour lectures. I’ve done several of their courses, the latest being the 60-lecture “Joy of Science.” I think what I like best is that they help me put a lot of the miscellaneous information I’ve accumulated in a lifetime into a greater context.

Ben just interrupted me to come hear a tape of him playing the guitar and singing a little more than 38 years ago. It was about the time I met him. He’s had these reel-to-reel tapes all this time and no way to play them. But that’s story for another time. Remind me to tell you about music and Guild guitars if I forget.

Now, my dinger just went off and I need to go see how bad the damage really is.