Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dark Problems

Chapter 5B

Dark Problems


It had been suspected for some time that galaxies had far more matter than we could determine from what was visible. Once we were able to look at galaxies in the full spectrum we realized that perhaps as much as 90% of some galaxies’ mass was unaccounted for (one main reason for this realization is that the outer stars in a galaxy are going so fast that without that much extra mass to keep them in, they would be flung into intergalactic space). But apparently most of that missing mass (now called “dark matter”) cannot be seen, for it does not interact with ordinary matter, except through gravity. In other words, most of the matter in the universe is completely different from anything we have known until now (it is not made up of protons, neutrons, electrons and the like). To study dark matter it is necessary to observe the universe with space telescopes, as will be explained below.

To make matters worse, it was discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, in violation of the sensible belief that gravitational attraction should slow down and perhaps even reverse the expansion initiated in the most famous of all explosions, the Big Bang. A new form of energy, Dark Energy, which we understand even less than we understand Dark Matter, presumably accounts for that perplexing expansion. Since dark energy and dark matter take up most of the universe, our precious Standard Model tries to explain the entire universe on the basis of the less than ten percent of matter that it is acquainted with. Imagine that you come to a new place and get to know ten percent of it. All you know about the rest is that it is completely different from the small portion you know. How confident would you feel about explaining the whole on the basis of the one part you can handle? And then add the complication that Dark Energy make up two thirds of the universe!

Again, to study dark energy we need to go into space, sooner or later. Some of the work of surveying the universe can be done with terrestrial telescopes, but the findings of such surveys will have to be corroborated and supplemented by telescopes in orbit, as we will see below. This means that to have much of a chance to come up with a fundamental explanation of the universe we need to do space science. Some physicists still hope that in the new particle accelerators, which will produce very high energies, violent collisions will yield some dark matter particles. And, who knows, their hopes may perchance be realized, but since we do not know what dark matter is, those physicists sound a bit too optimistic. And even then we would still have the even bigger puzzle of dark energy.

To do away with the problem of Dark Energy, some physicists have proposed to replace the Theory of General Relativity with another theory in which gravity is not a constant. This hypothesis, which is rejected by most physicists, would of course represent a radical transformation of fundamental physics brought about by space astronomy and physics. Either way, space science should receive significant credit for the serendipity that will result from the soon-to-be new physics.


Let us begin our discussion of Claim (1) by remembering that the connection with astrophysics has been a trademark of modern physical science from its inception and throughout most of its history.

Although it is well known that Copernicus proposed that the sun and not the Earth was at the center of the universe, his motivation is not so well understood. It was not that his system could account for the position of the planets clearly better than the Ptolemaic system, for even Copernicus acknowledged that the matter was not settled. Nor was it obvious either, in spite of the claims by Pierre Duhem and others, that his system was vastly simpler. It is true that the Ptolemaic system employed a variety of mechanisms--epicycles, eccentrics, deferents, equants--to account for the paths of the planets, but with the exception of the equant so did the Copernican system. (See figures).[1] The difference was that the Ptolemaic system often had alternative combinations of such mechanisms for different aspects of the behavior of the same planet. This would seem outrageous to someone weaned on the notion that only one such mechanism could be correct. But the mere talk of correctness assumes that we can inquire about the real nature of the heavens.

We feel entitled to make that assumption rather freely today. But that was not the case in Copernicus' day. From the time of Ptolemy (second century AD.), the inquiry about the reality of the heavens had been looked upon with suspicion. The reason was that whereas the progress of mathematical astronomy made it possible to calculate with increasing precision the positions of the planets, the accounts of why the planets moved as they did had broken down not long after Aristotle had proposed the interaction of concentric spheres made of his quintessence (about 350 BC.).

According to Ptolemy himself, mathematics can apply only to "changes in form: i.e. in trajectory, shape, quantity, size, position, time, and the rest."[2] As to the actual nature of things there is little that science can do because they either take "place far above us, among the highest things in the universe, far away from the objects we directly observe with our senses," or else, as the objects of (terrestrial) physics, those "material things...are so unstable and difficult to fathom that one can never hope to get philosophers to agree about them."[3] Questions about the nature of the heavenly objects must lead one back to the ultimate source of all change, and thus they can only be answered by theology. Therefore science gains little to profit from asking them. And they are also distinct in kind from the sorts of questions that physics tries to answer, whose underlying principles, if any, did not seem amenable to mathematical treatment.

In the long run the Copernican revolution accomplished several important changes in points of view. For one thing it insisted in investigating the nature of the behavior of the heavenly objects. And it did so by looking for mutual underlying mathematical principles for both the heavens and the Earth. The success of this gross violation of Ptolemy's methodological rules turned on Copernicus' belief that astrophysics was possible. Eventually Newton succeeded where Aristotle had failed, and astrophysics became the shining example that new branches of physics had to follow.

Confusions about Copernicus' motivation were created mainly by Osiander's preface to Copernicus' masterpiece, On the Revolutions. Fearing a confrontation with theological dogma, Osiander urged the readers to "permit these new hypotheses to become known together with the ancient hypotheses," and to do so because Copernicus' hypotheses are "admirable and also simple, and bring with them a huge treasure of skillful observations." But the Copernicus' reader, Osiander wrote, should not accept as the truth "ideas conceived for another purpose."[4] All these admonitions by Osiander contradict Copernicus' own words and belie his attempt to discover the truth about the heavens by rational means instead of revelation.

In the centuries following Copernicus, astrophysics continued as a driving force of fundamental theory. Newton is, of course, the most prominent example. His laws of dynamics applied equally to terrestrial and heavenly objects, and his law of gravitation was a striking statement of the discovery that the force that kept us glued to the surface of the Earth was the same that made the stars and planets keep their appointed rounds.

We begin to see why this view of science is distorted when we realize that fundamental questions often cannot be asked without the appropriate technology and will not be asked without the right kind of inspiration and motivation. But this realization leads to another: that a whole host of activities are potentially as crucial to scientific progress as work that aims to solve problems within the most prestigious field of the time. Researchers who create new technology or new opportunities may contribute just as much to keep intact the dynamic character of science. And inspiration has often come as much from the planets as from the stars.

[1] T.S. Kuhn. (1957) The Copernican Revolution. Harvard University Press.

[2] S. Toulmin and J. Goodfield (196 ) The Fabric of the Heavens.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Space Physics and Astronomy

Chapter 5A

Space Physics and Astronomy

According to the journal Science, Rashid Sunyaev, a famous Russian astrophysicist, “once heard the chair of his department say that ‘astronomy was an absolutely useless science.’”[1]

After the spectacular successes of the space telescopes and the new generation of Earth-bound telescopes, the public may be surprised to learn that not long ago many scientists regarded space astronomy and space physics with some suspicion. Quite a few physicists, for example, felt that all those billions of dollars for space astronomy should have supported the construction of a new generation of particle accelerators instead – particle accelerators dealt with truly basic science. I presume that a good many of those physicists may now agree that the money spent in space telescopes has been money well spent. But it is important to see why they are right in having changed their minds.

The reason is that, in the pursuit of cosmological knowledge, physics and astronomy done in space affect the transformation of our views in a very important respect: They provide a framework within which to challenge our most fundamental terrestrial sciences. For to understand the formation and evolution of the universe we need to see how the basic laws of nature are expressed in it. At the same time, to have a good grasp of the basic laws of nature we need to see how well we can describe the universe by using them. In a second respect they affect that transformation in an even more radical way: astronomy and physics done in space allow us to discover phenomena that we could not have discovered otherwise and that will force us to develop a new physics.


As we recall from Chapter 3, a scientific critic might argue that, since these sciences examine far-away objects, the ensuing transformation of our views is unlikely to pay off for the inhabitants of the Earth. For example, space astronomy and physics constitute a prime example of attempting to satisfy our intellectual curiosity -- they aim to describe features of the universe that many people find interesting, sometimes fascinating. The problem for my thesis is precisely that these space sciences fit my points about curiosity so well while apparently failing to satisfy my expectation about practical results in the long run. Surely, the objection continues, it is by no means obvious that the transformation of our theories about black holes, quasars, and intergalactic gas will be of much application on the Earth.

There is, according to the objection, a great difference between Earth-bound physics and these space sciences. Consider anew the example of how Einstein’s revolution in physics led to lasers and their application in medicine: That revolution transformed our understanding of the basic principles of matter, of principles that apply down here. It is not surprising, then, that our panorama of problems and opportunities was bound to change as a result of the transformation of our thought. The principles of fundamental science (e.g. particle physics) apply down here because they apply everywhere. By contrast, space astronomy and space physics merely apply to stars, galaxies, and quasars the fundamental principles of matter discovered by Earth-bound physics -- thus they are derivative sciences. My thesis about serendipity would then apply only to fundamental science. Therefore, space astronomy and space physics cannot be justified by my general philosophical argument.

For almost a century now the most fundamental and empirically successful description of matter has been given by the so-called Standard Model, which explains the universe in terms of its building blocks (particles) and the fields (strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational) that allow those blocks to interact. The main experimental tools of the Standard Model have been giant particle accelerators that smash those particles at speeds close to that of light and then theorize from the resulting debris. When the choice came between spending billions to build even more powerful accelerators or spending billions to put up telescopes in orbit, the feeling among many physicists was that, interesting though astronomy may be, taking money away from the terrestrial tools that would allow us to advance the Standard Model further was tantamount to blunting fundamental science’s cutting edge.

My response will be as follows: (1) space physics and astronomy have distinct scientific advantages over terrestrially bound sciences; (2) these scientific advantages show that space physics and astronomy are fundamental science in the same sense that terrestrially bound physics is because (a) you cannot do terrestrial physics properly without doing space science, and (b) the theoretical and experimental articulation of physics needs challenge, a challenge that space science has provided and will continue to provide. Space science has made the Standard Model due for a change.

[1] “News Focus: In the Afterglow of the Big Bang.” Science, vol 327, January 1, 2010: 27.