Rooty-toot-toot for Smoot!

28 03 2007

 ”You want your mind to be boggled,” Perlmutter says. ”That is a pleasure in and of itself. . .”

(see Forbiddenlibrary.com for my headline reference — Favorite Daughter thought of this to go with the science story and dug it up, from a 1931 Ogden Nash poem skewering the censorship of a politician named Charles Smoot, spelling the taunt rooti-ti-toot — I’ll take George instead, thanks! )

We’ll all be Kansas by and by . . .
but meantime what an AWESOME universe we can think about!

NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE.com
March 11, 2007
Out There
By RICHARD PANEK

Richard Panek is the author of ”The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes.”

Three days after learning that he won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, George Smoot was talking about the universe. Sitting across from him in his office at the University of California, Berkeley, was Saul Perlmutter, a fellow cosmologist and a probable future Nobelist in Physics himself. Bearded, booming, eyes pinwheeling from adrenaline and lack of sleep, Smoot leaned back in his chair. Perlmutter, onetime acolyte, longtime colleague, now heir apparent, leaned forward in his.

”Time and time again,” Smoot shouted, ”the universe has turned out to be really simple.”

Perlmutter nodded eagerly. ”It’s like, why are we able to understand the universe at our level?”

”Right. Exactly. It’s a universe for beginners! ‘The Universe for Dummies’!”

But as Smoot and Perlmutter know, it is also inarguably a universe for Nobelists, and one that in the past decade has become exponentially more complicated. Since the invention of the telescope four centuries ago, astronomers have been able to figure out the workings of the universe simply by observing the heavens and applying some math, and vice versa. Take the discovery of moons, planets, stars and galaxies, apply Newton’s laws and you have a universe that runs like clockwork. Take Einstein’s modifications of Newton, apply the discovery of an expanding universe and you get the big bang. ”It’s a ridiculously simple, intentionally cartoonish picture,” Perlmutter said. ”We’re just incredibly lucky that that first try has matched so well.”

But is our luck about to run out? Smoot’s and Perlmutter’s work is part of a revolution that has forced their colleagues to confront a universe wholly unlike any they have ever known, one that is made of only 4 percent of the kind of matter we have always assumed it to be — the material that makes up you and me and this magazine and all the planets and stars in our galaxy and in all 125 billion galaxies beyond. The rest — 96 percent of the universe — is … who knows?

”Dark,” cosmologists call it, in what could go down in history as the ultimate semantic surrender. This is not ”dark” as in distant or invisible. This is ”dark” as in unknown for now, and possibly forever. . .

It’s restricted access for subscribers and it might be worth it at that, just to read the whole thing, but here’s the end at least:

”It may be that there’s not really dark energy, that that’s a figment of our misperception about gravity, that gravity actually changes the way it operates on long ranges.”

The only way out, cosmologists and particle physicists agree, would be a ”new physics” — a reconciliation of general relativity and quantum mechanics. ”Understanding dark energy,” Riess says, ”seems to really require understanding and using both of those theories at the same time.”

”It’s been so hard that we’re even willing to consider listening to string theorists,” Perlmutter says, referring to work that posits numerous dimensions beyond the traditional (one of time and three of space). ”They’re at least providing a language in which you can talk about both things at the same time.”

According to quantum theory, particles can pop into and out of existence. In that case, maybe the universe itself was born in one such quantum pop. And if one universe can pop into existence, then why not many universes? String theorists say that number could be 10 raised to the power of 500. Those are 10-with-500-zeros universes, give or take. In which case, our universe would just happen to be the one with an energy density of .74, a condition suitable for the existence of creatures that can contemplate their hyper-Copernican existence.

And this is just one of a number of theories that have been popping into existence, quantum-particle-like, in the past few years: parallel universes, intersecting universes or, in the case of Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog just last summer, a superposition of universes. But what evidence — extraordinary or otherwise — can anyone offer for such claims? The challenge is to devise an experiment that would do for a new physics what COBE did for the big bang. Predictions in string theory, as in the 10-to-the-power-of-500-universes hypothesis, depend on the existence of extra dimensions, a stipulation that just might put the burden back on particle physics — specifically, the hope that evidence of extra dimensions will emerge in the Large Hadron Collider, or perhaps in its proposed successor, the International Linear Collider, which might come online sometime around 2020, or maybe in the supercollider after that, if the industrial nations of 2030 decide they can afford it.

”You want your mind to be boggled,” Perlmutter says. ”That is a pleasure in and of itself. And it’s more a pleasure if it’s boggled by something that you can then demonstrate is really, really true.”

And if you can’t demonstrate that it’s really, really true?

”If the brilliant idea doesn’t come along,” Riess says, ”then we will say dark energy has exactly these properties, it acts exactly like this. And then” — a shrug — ”we will put it in a box.” And there it will remain, residing perhaps not far from the box labeled ”Dark Matter,” and the two of them bookending the biggest box of them all, ”Gravity,” to await a future Newton or Einstein to open — or not.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

One response

29 07 2011
What’s in a Word Like Debt, Deficit, Tax? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] add up to be both right and wrong, which one supposes would make Shakespeare Einsteinian, too (did I say simple?) derived from this Business Week cover […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: