In today’s science, we no longer have to see to believe
Last week I met the distinguished Harvard particle physicist Lisa Randall, who has linked a mysterious cosmic source of gravity called dark matter to the most famous terrestrial cataclysm of all, the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. She has even written a book about it — Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.
We only know dark matter exists by inferring that it is real. Analyse the movements of stars and you can work out how much matter is making them swirl and how much makes galaxies clump together — and therefore how much mass makes our universe look the way it does. However, the stars that we can see account for only about one per cent of the mass of the universe. Ghostly neutrino particles contribute, at most, a similar amount. Add planets, gas clouds and other objects and that’s another 10 per cent. But 85 per cent is unaccounted for. That’s dark matter.
Though unseen and unfelt, it affects the expansion of our cosmos, the orbits of stars around the centres of galaxies, and more besides.
To see these cosmic connections between the physics of elementary particles, the majesty of the heavens and the biology of life itself, you need more than the evidence of your own eyes. That’s inadequate, and fallible too, if you know your neuroscience. You need faith in the practice, theories and instruments of modern science. More.
Fair enough but we also need historical awareness. Dark matter could well end up in the same category as ether or phlogiston (reasonable assumptions that didn’t pan out), however much it agrees with the practice, theories and instruments of modern science. The fact that we feel it must exist but haven’t found any after so much search makes that possibility worth keeping in mind.
In science, small, persistent effects cannot be ignored. Sometimes they force a revision of major paradigms. For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” on the horizon of Newtonian classical physics of the day, namely, Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was certain that these troubling little clouds would be blown away shortly.149 Yet all of modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—derives from these two little dark clouds. (The Spiritual Brain, p. 173)
See also: Arrow of time points to missing dark mater?
Dark matter: Darker and weirder
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