The Universe: A Response


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In the week or so since the Dean of Eberly College of Science gave his talk about the universe, I've been looking up into a different Space, with a new sense of intrigue and wonder. 

In most science classes, the mysteries of things like the weather or electricity are explained and solved and understood. SC200's lectures however, and last week's lesson on the expanding universe leave me for the first time with an understanding of all the things science doesn't know and can only make [often inaccurate] guesses and inferences at. It was surprising to learn how much our concept of the universe has changed in only 20 years.

But the thing that caught my attention the most was the concept of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Especially the way Mr. Larson explained it:

usa at nightsmaller.jpg

For those of you who don't remember (or fell asleep) - Mr Larson emphasized that when we see this image, we know that those dark spaces are not empty. There is mass there, just not mass that is visible to us (since human sight is limited by what light we can pick up).

And Space, like the image above, is full of blackness that we'd like to see as empty nothingness but that in fact has its own energy and matter that's invisible to us.

To understand things a little better, I decided to consult the NASA website, who provide information and history on Dark Energy and Matter in simple English. 

It turns out that Einstein himself actually predicted that more space can come into existence and that that "empty space" can possess its own energy. So he was aware that empty space was not empty space. 

Modern-day scientists, however, are still not sure what dark matter and dark energy really are - they can only describe it in terms of what it isn't. The most important definition for those of us who find it hard to grasp that empty space is not empty is this: "dark matter is not antimatter, because we do not see the unique gamma rays that are produced when antimatter annihilates with matter." Dark matter is matter, but with properties that humankind has never encountered before.

Another insight into explaining Dark Matter's existence comes from physicist Elena Aprile of Colombia University, a prominent Dark Matter researcher:
       "The Milky Way is a disk that rotates like a merry-go-round. The question is, what keeps it from flying apart? Gravity, of course, but there is not enough visible matter in the galaxy to account for the amount of gravity needed to hold it together. That's why we know that there must be other matter there that we can't see."

I really like that explanation, as gravity and the need for mass to create that force is something most of us already understand and can see the logic in. According to rest of Ms. Aprile's interview, the visible is only about 18% of the components of the universe. That is a startlingly small amount and exposes just how inadequate our knowledge-base is. 

spiralgalaxysmaller.jpg

Another source that exposes those inadequacies is the NASA webpage I linked to before, where at the bottom you can also see how numerous the discoveries and breakthroughs on the subject of Dark Matter are this year. Presumably even more will be discovered next year and our definition of space and what's in it, how it works, and why will dramatically change as much as it has been this year. And what we see when we look up into the sky will be different from what we're seeing now. I know that I personally am not seeing the same empty space I saw before.

So to conclude this response, I'd like to thank Mr. Larson for speaking and Andrew for arranging it all. The talk inspired me to learn more about the universe and brought my awareness to one of the most rapidly-changing and mysterious fields of study in science today. Even more exciting is that Penn State is actively involved in this!


2 Comments

Dark matter has been proven to be a very real thing, but dark energy I think would reach the same end as "Is there a God": no testable hypothesis. We know that the energy exists, and we can see what seems like it's influences on earth, but how it came about and why would still be a scientific mystery. Although it would be interesting to see that there is really a dark matter beyond our perception of the universe, which has a gravitational force pulling our universe towards it. For now, all we can do is speculate.

Hi Jenelle -your support for Dark Matter having proven to be real is actually one of the websites listed and linked to in this blog, so I'm fully aware of its scientific support. Since matter and energy are often spoken of interchangeably, I went back and forth between speaking of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in my blog but I'm speaking of them as one phenomenon, as "the unseen." Scientists aren't sure if they're the same entity but each of them is just as mysterious as the other, and just as unprovable for now.

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