Science and fantasy on a collision course – watch out for fireballs!

The New York Times included today this wonderful quote:

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan.

Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah – the economy. But this guy isn’t talking about the economy, he’s talking about the universe. Really, one of the reasons these are such exciting times is we are now starting to recognize that the basics are still out of our reach – way out. One of my favorite examples is the universe – see we know a heck of a lot about ordinary matter – the stuff you, me, the Earth and stars are made of – but the current scientific consensus seem to be that this stuff constitutes at most about 5 percent of the universe. What constitutes the rest? Dark matter and dark energy. Oh – that’s clear. 😉

Geeeeeeeesh. Give me a break. Our science knowledge is stupendous, but apparently we’ve only read the first five pages of the 100-page book about our universe. And keep in mind, our universe, in the minds of many who study such things, is an entity – a something – one something among many, many, many others. It’s the old Russian Easter Egg trick played on a magnificent scale – and when you get to the last tiny egg isnide the egg inside th egg you discover that the whole reductionist path was a scam – it provides some handy insights, but it doesn’t give you any ultimate answers. OK – back to the article. It actually begins like this – to put that first quote in context:

A concatenation of puzzling results from an alphabet soup of satellites and experiments has led a growing number of astronomers and physicists to suspect that they are getting signals from a shadow universe of dark matter that makes up a quarter of creation but has eluded direct detection until now.


“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan. Physicists caution that there could still be a relatively simple astronomical explanation for the recent observations.

But the nature of this dark matter is one of the burning issues of science. Identifying it would point the way to a deeper understanding of the laws of nature and the Einsteinian dream of a unified theory of physics.

Oh – and here’s one cool example of the puzzles:

On Thursday, a team of astrophysicists working on one of the experiments reported in the journal Nature that a cosmic ray detector onboard a balloon flying around the South Pole had recorded an excess number of high-energy electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, sailing through local space.

The particles, they conceded, could have been created by a previously undiscovered pulsar, the magnetized spinning remnant of a supernova explosion, blasting nearby space with electric and magnetic fields. But, they say, a better and more enticing explanation for the excess is that the particles are being spit out of the fireballs created by dark matter particles colliding and annihilating one another in space.

Oh man – are you kidding me? Dark matter particles – stuff we can’t see and can’t detect with any known device – are colliding with one another and spitting out fireballs?! What seems to be colliding is science and fantasy! I love it. I’m skeptical as hell. But I love it. (Aside – if you read this article note how much of the science is being reportedon the INternet – or from emails. Interesting.)

Here’s a great one-paragraph summary of the history of dark matter:

Dark matter has teased and obsessed astronomers since the 1930s, when the Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky deduced that some invisible “missing mass” was required to supply the gravitational glue to hold clusters of galaxies together. The idea became respectable in the 1970s when Vera C. Rubin of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and her collaborators found from studying the motions of stars that most galaxies seemed to be surrounded by halos of dark matter.

Honest folks, I have some familiarity with the words from my reading of various popular books on relativity and quantum mechanics – but I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about in any real sense. I don’t speak math and my study of physics is elementary. So in the end an article like this excites my imagination, but leaves me in complete dspaire at ever understanding it. The puzzles of our complex, inter-locked, global economy are simple in comparison. And when i encounter an explanation such as the following . . .

But if he is right, Dr. Wefel said that the ATIC data favored something even more exotic than supersymmetry, namely a particle that is lost in the fifth dimension. String theory predicts that there are at least six dimensions beyond our simple grasp, wrapped up so tightly we cannot see them or park in them. A particle in one of these dimensions would not appear to us directly.

You could think of it as a hamster running around on a wheel in its cage. We cannot see the hamster or the cage, but we can sort of feel the impact of the hamster running; according to Einsteinian relativity, its momentum in the extra dimension would register as mass in our own space-time.

. . . well, i really wonder whether I’ve stumbled across some text snips from a Superman comic – or maybe the transcript of outtakes from one of the old Japanese science fiction thrillers where the hamster in the cage mutates into Hamzilla and terrorizes the beautiful lab assistant.

But no – this is the New York Times, this is serious science writing and these are serious scientists. I think. Well, not all are all that serious – at least about their rivals:

But Dr. Arkani-Hamed said that Kaluza-Klein particles would not annihilate one another at a fast enough rate to explain the strength of the ATIC signal, nor other anomalies like the microwave haze. He and his colleagues, including Dr. Weiner, Dr. Finkbeiner and Tracy Slatyer, also of Harvard, drawing on work by Matthew Strassler of Rutgers, have tried to connect all the dots with a new brand of dark matter, in which there are not only dark particles but also a “dark force” between them.

That theory was called “a delightful castle in the sky” by Dr. Kane, who said he was glad it kept Dr. Arkani-Hamed and his colleagues busy and diverted them from competing with him. Dr. Kane and his colleagues favor a 200 billion-electron-volt supersymmetric particle known as a wino as the dark matter culprit, in which case the Pamela bump would not extend to higher energies.

The conclusion of the article I do understand. . .

“With so many experiments, we will soon know so much more about all of this,” Dr. Weiner said. “In a year or two, we’ll either not be talking about this idea at all, or it will be all we’re talking about.”

So let’s wait for 2010 – someone make a note – let’s see what we’re talking about then – this, or something equivalent to Tinkerbelle’s fairy dust?

No – I don’t mean to sound that cynical – but this stuff does blow me away.