Sunday, December 02, 2007

Phunny Physics

Mann's Law - If a scientist discovers a publishable fact, it will become central to his theory.

Maybe it's the Internet's fault. Maybe it's all that time wasted on string theory. It just seems that the number of cockamamie, poorly thought out, hastily published, and generally weird theories that are being published has increased exponentially in recent years. I'll admit it's become a recurring theme in this space, but there's so much of it out there, one could hardly avoid talking about it.

Take dark energy. Dark energy has supplanted dark matter as the most plentiful thing in the universe. The problem is that we don't know what it is and can't detect it except by very indirect inference of observations. Dark energy theory is 10 years old, but we know nothing more about it than we did when it was first proposed. To show how ridiculous the "field" is, Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University, who is apparently bucking for his own show on The Science Channel, has now put forth a theory that, in the manner of Schrodinger's Cat, we are shortening the life of the universe through our observations.

Evidently, Dr. Krauss decided that his theory of the dark ending of the universe was too depressing, so he needed a way to end it sooner. Of course, everyone knows he's got it wrong because the universe is really going to end in a Big Rip like an exploding balloon, thanks to the runaway expansion of everything. The culprit, of course, is dark energy.

You think that's silly stuff? How about this? One of the little nagging problems in all these dark energy and dark matter theories is that the Milky Way isn't going where it's supposed to be going at the speed it should be speeding. Now, that could be because our calculations for the mass of the universe aren't exactly what they should be or that our estimates of distance and velocity are wrong. There's plenty of precedents for the latter as we have seen distance estimates change radically ever since Edwin Hubble determined that many "nebulae" were actually galaxies running away from us at high speed. Scientists make all sorts of assumptions about "standard candles", some of which haven't held up.

As to the mass of the universe, well, that one is certainly still up in the air.

At any rate, an explanation for the anomalous movement of our galaxy has been proposed that invokes a hidden twin of the Milky Way! Presumably it's the evil twin, Binky. No, I made that up, but it's not much worse than the idea of a galaxy that is hidden by dust and evidently emits no radio waves, X-rays, or infrared radiation, so that it won't be detected by all of the instruments and satellites we've got mapping the sky, even though it's only slightly farther away than the Andromeda Galaxy.

If that isn't enough for you, how about this one? It's been known for some time that the structure of the universe is not a random scatter of galaxies. Rather the galaxies are clumped together in huge clusters with large gaps between them. Recently, the biggest such gap was discovered from some old WMAP data. Now, this area isn't void of matter; it just doesn't have very much. That's interesting enough, but someone has to go another step and announce that this gap is a view into another universe. Of course, this "discovery" is based on string theory, meaning that someone has done a mathematical construct using torturous calculations to indicate that there might possibly maybe conceivably be another universe impinging on ours at the area where the gap occurs.

It's not that I dismiss dark energy and dark matter out of hand; there's some degree of evidence for both. Well, dark energy, as noted in the link above, is shaky at best, and some people don't think dark matter exists either. The latter group invokes modifications in theory of gravity, though, that aren't exactly justified by observation, which, to me, weakens their arguments considerably. As to string theory, well, you know what I think of that (here, for example, among other rants).

What exactly is going on in physics, anyway? It's not that crazy theories aren't interesting and possibly valuable, because they can be. After all, Relativity and Quantum Theory were regarded as pretty nutty in their early days. But twin galaxies, big rips, big fade outs, holes in the universe?
There's crazy and then there's downright silly.

I'm not sure we haven't crossed the line here.

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