Sunday, November 23, 2008

The universe is a bad prop?

It’s been theorized for a little while now that the universe consists of only 4% matter as we know it, with the remaining 96% made up of dark matter and dark energy.

“Dark” matter and energy are so-called because they are not visible to us through telescopes, whether we’re looking in the visible light spectrum, the radio spectrum, or anything else. By inference, they don’t interact at all with the electro-magnetic spectrum. They are theorised to exist because:

In the case of dark energy – without this energy pushing the universe apart, galaxies would not be accelerating away from each other at the increasing rate that has been observed. Dark energy is calculated to make up 74% of the known universe, based on how much of it is needed to be flinging the galaxies apart. Everything else in our current physics framework predicts the shape and size of the universe quite nicely, except for this one puzzling phenomena of the expanding universes.

To me, “dark energy” sounds similar to the “cosmological constant” that Einstein threw into one of his equations fairly arbitarily without being able to explain exactly what it was or why it was there, except that without it his equations simply didn’t describe a static universe. (A static universe is one that is neither expanding nor contracting and was, at the time, thought to be how the universe was.) If you think this sounds intellectually just the teeniest bit dodgy, then you’d be right. Einstein in his later years called the cosmological constant his “biggest blunder” and appeared to regret having tossed it in without having a better explanation for it. However, the consensus now seems to be that we do not have a static universe, but an expanding one. To my layman’s eye, here we are again in almost the same place, with a different label for similar phenomena required to make the theory correspond to the reality.

Dark matter is theorised to exist as there are gravitational phenomena, such as the speed at which galaxies rotate, which cannot be explained without there being much more mass than can be observed. Dark matter is thought to comprise 22% of the universe, again based upon how much of it there should be to explain the observed phenomena.

Dark matter has a bit more evidence going for it than dark energy, as black holes are a perfectly well-accepted part of our modern physical framework. Black holes haven’t been directly observed – by definition, they can’t be, as they swallow any light that comes hear enough, so they can only be observed indirectly. The indirect effects on nearby light and matter have been observed often enough that there isn’t any real debate about whether they exist. So, we already know of one phenomenon that is for-real dark matter.

In addition to the invisible “dark” matter and energy (“Luke! Come to the dark side! I am your… missing mass? Hey, what sort of line do you call this?”) there is the recent finding that I canvassed briefly in my last post, namely, that 95% of the mass of atoms has now been verified as not being mass at all, but merely a phenomena arising from sub-atomic energy and movement. The universe as directed by Baz Luhrmann, if you will – not much content, but the colour and movement is breathtaking.

I was thinking this was remarkable enough, until I happened across this article in Discover Magazine that explains this sub-atomic energy and movement could correctly called be “quantum fluctuations” So, 95% of the mass we experience is actually, at base, quantum fluctuations. Whoah, to quote the Keanu.

So, if we tie this back to dark matter and energy, it could be theorized that 95% of the dark mass of the universe is… anti-Baz Luhrmann energy. Non-colour and movement. The Steven Wright of the universe – apparently as unimpressive as anything, but boy, it has an effect.

What’s more, the same Discover article reminded me that the 5% of mass that isn’t included in the “Luhrmann” phenomena is theorised to perhaps be a product of the Higgs boson, which the Large Hadron Collider is purpose-built to try to find. No-one yet knows whether traces of the Higgs boson will be found by the LHC or not, but either way the consequences for our worldview will be profound.

So, without the Higgs boson, we have a universe that looks like:

74% dark matter – which could be 95% dark energy also.
22% dark energy.
4% “real”mass as we know it – except it isn’t, 95% of it is quantum fluctuations.

However, if we separate out the energy and dark energy components of matter and dark matter, we get:

74.0% dark energy
20.9% dark quantum energy masquerading as dark mass
1.1% actual dark mass
3.8% quantum fluctuation energy masquerading as visible mass
0.2% real visible mass

Look at that again. Of the universe we think exists, only 0.2% is actually observable and conforms to something like our common-sense notions of what “solid” is.

0.2%. Two parts in a thousand. Nine hundred and ninety-eight parts we have very little idea about and will never directly perceive. What’s out there (and in here)? Who knows? How would we ever find out? Don’t think too closely about this – you may get frightened.

If the Higgs boson is demonstrated to exist, then it will also have been demonstrated that the Entire. Solid. Universe. is nothing but an illusion, created by the happenstance spin and flow of quantum particles.

Man, this place was built on a low budget!

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