Loving Dark Matter Rather Than Light

Posted on December 31, 2011 in Astronomy, Cosmology, Issues, Philosophy of Science, Physical Science, Physics, Space

There are two ways to describe dark things in science.  One is phenomena we know exist, even if invisible to us, because we can measure their effects with instruments (X-rays, infrared radiation).  The other is darkness as a placeholder for something not yet explained.  Cosmologists have been talking about “dark matter” for decades now, and “dark energy” since the 1990s.  Which category of dark ideas are they?  Whether scientifically valid phenomena or placeholders for ignorance, one thing is clear from recent articles: much more knowledge is needed.

  • Still in the dark about dark matter (PhysOrg): “Dark matter, the mysterious stuff thought to make up about 80 percent of matter in the universe, has become even more inscrutable.
  • Variable dark energy could explain old galaxy clusters (New Scientist): Astronomers don’t even know what dark energy is, but now a Spaniard wants to twiddle with it.
  • Little galaxies big on dark matter (PhysOrg): “Dark matter… It came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang.”  That’s how to talk with chutzpah about something nobody understands.
  • Revolutionary new camera reveals the dark side of the Universe (PhysOrg): Now here’s an article about real stuff: ordinary electromagnetic radiation in the submillimeter range, being detected by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.
  • Nobel Winners Keep Eyes on the Real Prize: Solving Dark Energy Riddle (Live Science): Three men got a lot of money from the Nobel Committee for “discovering” dark energy.  Now they want to discover what it is they discovered; “the force has yet to be directly detected, and the concept remains shrouded in mystery.
  • Could dark matter not matter? (PhysOrg): Some Italian has come up with a way to explain the rotation curves of galaxies without appealing to dark matter, but others are skeptical.
  • Back to the dark ages (Live Science): A tiny smudge of red light boasts great things: “The newfound galaxy is so ancient that it and others like it may have played a role in the transition from the so-called ‘dark ages’ of the universe — a period before the first stars formed when a thick hydrogen fog permeated the cosmos — into the universe we see today.”  Remember that the early medieval period was called the Dark Ages by those who felt themselves enlightened.  Is history repeating itself?

This is a taste of the quandary over dark things in space.  To some, dark matter must be real, because otherwise clusters would fly apart and galaxies would spin out of control.  Dark energy must be real or else we cannot explain the brightness of distant supernovae.  To others, appeals to unknown dark things sounds mysteriously like some of the occult forces ditched by scientists in the past, like phlogiston, animal magnetism, and caloric.  Time will tell if and when the light of knowledge will overcome the darkness.

How long do you give scientists to propound occult forces?  Another decade?  Another century?  A millennium?  If there is no time limit on verifying these things, then science has become indistinguishable from magic.  Mesmer would feel vindicated.

Dark matter is the flubber of astronomy.  Nobody knows if its MACHO or WIMP-y, nobody knows why it is there, and nobody knows its origin or destiny.  All it does is make consensus theories work.  OK, astronomers, maybe you’re right; there is dark matter and dark energy out there.  We’ll grant a little more time for science to try to explain this stuff, but we’re not going to fall for the flubber theory forever.  Cosmologists: if you don’t want angels, demons and intelligent designers in science, then stop giving us your own version of the occult.

 

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