Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Afraid of the Dark?

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. ~ Douglas Adams

The honey bees are going missing, the Antarctic is melting so fast that chunks the size of California are disappearing, quantum computers are around the corner, but what is everyone writing about? In a hundred billion years, astronomers and cosmologists are going to need to find new jobs. I can't recall the last bit of theorizing that received so much play in the scientific press and even the mainstream press.

Heck, I even blogged about it.

Of course, if you read my entry, you'll note that I point out some potential difficulties with the eternal darkness theory, not the least of which involves the possibility that scientists have completely misread the repulsive force of dark energy. If that is the case, then astronomers and cosmologists will have continued employment for a lot longer than 100 billion years.

I'm not sure I understand why this one theory has been mentioned in so many places. If anything, it's more depressing than the standard model of so many years, that being that, thanks to entropy, the universe will end up as a thin, cold haze of elementary particles in a gazillion years from now. So, why is the idea that we might as well be at that point much earlier getting such legs?

(A small digression: Neil Degrasse Tyson was once describing that "cold haze" end of the universe on some program or another. After doing so, he paused, smiled, and said, "I think about that a lot." Maybe it was the smile, but it just struck me as funny somehow.)

Now there's certainly nothing wrong with reporting this particular theory; it's an intriguing extrapolation on the impact of dark energy, if it does, in fact, exist and behave the way we think it does. Of course, it may not exist or, if it does, it may be that we have totally misunderstood the way it works. That's why scientists do research and create models. Reporting these theories gets more people thinking about them, which leads to more theorizing and modeling.

But the people who do the serious work are going to read about such ideas in professional journals where they can peruse the original papers. Science publications (from trees and on the web) aimed at the lay person is probably not where the professionals are getting the bulk of their information. Normally, when something of this nature comes out, a couple of articles will be written, and the moving hands, having writ, movie on.

Yet this story is turning up all over the place.

Perhaps it fits with the current doom-and-destruction outlook that the scientific media seems to love these days. Or it might have to do with the connection with the exotic dark-energy-antigravity thing. It's difficult to say, but it's certainly a popular subject.

Sir Arthur Eddington once famously said, "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." In some ways, that is most certainly true. The idea of pulsars, black holes, and the quantum universe were unimaginable 150 years ago. But, the quantum world aside, once we find these strange things, we tend to find that their behavior follows the physical laws we've discovered over the centuries. Even quantum mechanics has some well-defined rules, but the rules are still changing, which means we still haven't pinned them all down yet.

What I'm driving at is that when we invoke forces or forms of matter we can't describe and don't understand, any models we create with those things are highly subjective and speculative. The act of developing those models and theories helps push our level of understanding upward, but it's important that we recognize the difference between what we know and what we're guessing.

I think that's what is bothering me about all this fuss about the coming darkness. It's very speculative, yet the stories, as is so often the case, don't emphasize that. The more stories that come out hyping the theory, the more likely that the lay public is going to make a judgment that they are reading fact, not theory.

So, those of you in the science media, how about we move on to something else? Otherwise, the Science Channel is going to be tossing out one of their specials on how the "great darkness" is coming.

Of course, if that causes them to stop airing that silly show about string theory over and over, that might not be such a bad thing.

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