Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Using gray matter to find dark matter

Fads come and go and scientific theories are no different.  For the past few years, astronomers and physicists have been extolling the notion of "dark matter." 
A while back, numerous discrepancies came to light in regard to the estimated mass of galaxies.  In other words, the math did not match the observations.  That was when scientists began to postulate the existence of dark matter, a substance that can neither be seen by the eye nor detected through scattered electromagnetic radiation.  Nothing appears to be there but something is having a gravitational affect on stellar bodies and there has yet to be an accounting for it.

What is dark matter?  Nobody seems to have a good answer for that, but best estimates say that it accounts for 80% of the mass in the entire universe.  As you might imagine, this speculation has drawn its share of criticism.  I for one was not ready to jump onto the idea of 80% of the universe being composed of a hitherto unknown state of matter.  Seemed to me that it smelled of the old Greek notion of "the ether," something that likewise did not pan out.  I also started reading articles where other astronomers thought that the disconnect in calculations could indicate that we need a better understanding of how gravity works and not just chalk it up to unseen mystery mass.

Then this story gets published today.  The presence of dark matter may finally have been detected, but it will take a while for the mathematical dust to settle.  Powerful explosions were observed in the heart of our galaxy and there may be evidence of dark matter particle annihilation.   We'll know more once the findings go through peer review.

So whether or not I change my mind about dark matter will depend upon the results of the examination, but I'm no longer as opposed to the notion.  Just about twenty minutes ago, I took my dogs outside for a release of their bodily wastes.  As I stood there while they "did their thing," I looked up into the night sky.  Clouds swept over the stars but you could still see them.  I just kept staring up and up into the cold, black infinite.  It occurred to me that I was not merely being skeptical of dark matter, I was closed minded.  How often have I lambasted die-hard skeptics for clinging rigidly to old theories and refusing to even consider other notions, while here I am guilty of the same thing?  How many times have we been fervently sure of our scientific understanding, only to have it completely upended by what was once unthinkable?  And honestly, is the idea of dark matter any more ludicrous at face value than other subjects I've explored here?  Stranger reboot thyself. 

Is there unseen matter that accounts for 80% of the known universe?  My current answer to that is "why the hell not?"


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