Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I looked at failed scientific hypotheses, the scientific method, and how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity hold up and yet are completely incompatible with each other, mainly because one explains gravity very well but nothing on the quantum level, and the other is the opposite. Here’s the rest of the why of that. Cheers!

May the force(s) be with you

In physics, there are four fundamental forces. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. We’ve already met gravity, which works with enormous masses across great distances but doesn’t seem to really have much effect in the sub-atomic realm.

The electromagnetic force, mediated by electrons and photons, seems to work on both a macro and micro level. It gives us electricity, lightning, and a sense of touch — all rather large phenomena quite visible in the quotidian world. On a subatomic level, it gives us friction and holds solid objects together, among other things.

An ice cube, for example, is just the electromagnetic force acting on water below a certain temperature. The electromagnetic force is also why you don’t just fall through the floor.

The weak nuclear force facilitates one kind of subatomic particle changing into another via the exchange of Bosons. This force is essential for powering the fusion that keeps stars alive, as well as transforming one kind of particle into another.

Finally, there’s the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for keeping the fundamental particles that keep atoms together. It bonds the quarks to create protons and neutrons, then bonds those to create atomic nuclei, to which the electromagnetic force attracts elections, creating elements.

Now, here’s the funny thing. In theory, the strong nuclear force is much, much stronger than the force of gravity — if its force is set at 1, then gravity is 6×10-39. However, there’s a catch. Gravity’s effective range is infinite, while that of the strong nuclear force is only 10-15 meters.

This is the basic stalemate between Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and quantum physics. The former explains the gravitational force very well, but doesn’t do that with the others. The latter explains the other three, but really has dick-all that can explain the former.

It’s kind of like the ultimate Nerd-Fight Cage Match, really.

Is it elementary?

I find it kind of interesting that modern physics settled on four forces, though (and four dimensions, but I’m not bringing that into it) when the ancient world settled on four “elements.”

This was long before any kind of theory of atoms, but by the age of Alchemists, who sought the holy grail of turning lead into gold long before anyone even realized that the only way to do that was via nuclear fusion, the prevailing wisdom was this.

There were only four “elements.” They were earth, fire, air, and water. This four-split in human culture, at least of the Western European kind, became so prominent that it was ridiculous.

How many suits in a deck of cards? How many Gospels? How many cardinal directions on the compass?

And don’t forget those famous Elizabethan “humors” that you probably learned about in high school: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic.

Finally, how many limbs do we have, not counting our heads?

Somehow, this tetrapartite symbolism crept into Western culture and while the initial concepts about which elements actually existed are laughably wrong, let’s take a look at those naïve assumptions one more time, and map them onto modern physics.

Alchemists’ elements: Earth, fire, air, water

Elizabethan humours: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic

Physics forces: Gravity, electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force

In at least the first and the last cases, it’s a game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Earth — which you can think of as soil or dirt or the planet itself — is solid matter. The other three are plasma, gas, and liquid.

Likewise, gravity seems to be a force created by the existence of matter, but unlike the others has no apparent particle that transmits it.

Little trouble in big bang

The idea that the universe began with a so-called “big bang” started with Edwin Hubble, the person, when he proved that the universe was expanding in all directions.

It followed that if the universe was expanding now, it had to have started expanding at some point in the past, and rewinding the clock indicated that the entire universe had been a single point 13 or 14 billion years previously.

So much for the idea of the universe being created in six days in 4004 BCE.

But this led to all sorts of logical questions. What caused the Big Bang? What came before it? And how did everything we know in the universe come into being in that instant and after, since all the energy and matter we’d ever have to work with had to have been generated at that point?

The other big question: How will the universe end? Will the expansion continue forever, eventually slowing down and stopping as entropy reaches a maximum, leaving the place cold, dark, and empty? Or did that first bang only give a sufficient kick to reach a certain point before the whole thing started to contract again, eventually returning to that initial point, slamming everything together into a Big Crunch that would recreate the original singularity?

In 1998, Hubble the Telescope did its namesake proud by throwing a wrench into things.

A little push

It turned out that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down or reversing at all. No — it was accelerating, meaning that not only might it never reverse or stop, it might just keep on going forever.

But this brought up the biggest and still unanswered question: What was causing the acceleration?

If we continue with the explosion analogy for the creation of the universe — which isn’t really that accurate, since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once — there’s no way to account for the acceleration without adding some outside factor.

But imagine this scenario. You launch a firework into the air and it blows up like it’s supposed to, sending its colorful pyrotechnics and sparks outward in a short series of multi-colored showers that make the crowd ooh and aah.

Now, when you designed the firework, it was meant to be a five second air-burst at a safe height of 200 meters, expanding to a maximum diameter of maybe 110 meters if you launched a 20-centimeter shell.

After all, all of the mass and energy that would ever exist in that explosion was packed into that shell before launch; before the Big Bang.

But then, your shell gets up there, and not only does it hit its intended 110 meter burst size before five seconds, but it keeps on going and growing, gradually expanding faster than the initial 22 meter-per-second growth rate — and it never stops expanding.

This is kind of what the universe appears to be doing.

The universe has lost your luggage

Other discoveries indicated that galaxies were acting like they had a lot more mass than they should have, or that we were able to observe because of their rotation. This led to the postulation of the concept of dark matter.

Meanwhile, the accelerating expansion of the universe led to various hypotheses, including the idea of dark energy.

By the way, please keep in mind that the terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” really should not be taken literally. They’re placeholders to indicate two things. The “dark” part just says that we cannot detect them. The “matter” and “energy” parts just tell us that, at the moment, we’re looking for force carrier — i.e. particle/wave thingie — and a specific force.

It’s like the term “dark saber” in The Mandalorian. George Lucas just needed to pull something out of his ass to justify a light saber that was black — hence, technically, not involving light at all.


The takeaway here, though, is that dark matter seems to be pulling on galaxies to affect their spin, while dark energy seems to be pushing on the universe to speed up its expansion.

The real scary part of this though, is that the fallout of these two ideas is that less than 5% of our universe is made up of the familiar matter and energy that we know.

None of the dark energy hypotheses has been tested yet, although I lean towards modified gravity, or MOND concepts myself, since these truly seek to reconcile the two theories of relativity and unite the fundamental forces at last.

Ether frolic II

My problem with the idea of dark energy and dark matter is that they could just be this generation’s ether and phlogiston. Maybe the acceleration of expansion is an error in the original measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Or maybe something about the inflationary period created an artefact that only makes it look like acceleration is expanding when it’s not.

There was a very long period after the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Dark Ages, before stars or galaxies even formed. This may have been when Dark Matter arose — or it may just be an era we can’t really peer through because fusion had not lit up the cosmos.

Finally, we cannot really discount universal inflation, which is when everything expanded much faster than the speed of light. This was possible because nothing was moving that fast. It was space itself that ballooned, so that anything that moved with it was moving at the same speed as space relatively — i.e., it was stationary, so no violations at all.

But, since space-time seems to be the macro-fabric that gravity acts on instantaneously but in an attractive and not repulsive manner, could inflation and not the dark ages actually have been the period when whatever dark energy might exist was created?

Could this also be how gravity got separated forever from the other forces? Who knows? However, since gravity also apparently has no particle that transmits its force, it also has no anti-particle, at least that we know of.

Finding a particle for it would probably lead directly to solving the dark energy problem, since gravity’s anti-particle would be the particle transmitting dark… well, at that point, it would probably just become anti-gravity.

One other mind-fuck in the basket. As noted previously, we have confirmed the existence of gravity waves, which ripple through space-time on a super-macro scale. But if gravity waves do exist, is there a way to observe them that will show their particle nature as well?

Because if we manage to pull off that trick, well then… Special and General Relativity are going to need to get a room.

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…


So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International