Monday, October 10, 2011

Of Dark Energy and Hot Gas

Ever since I crashed on the academic rocks of calculus back in my college days and decided that the intricacies of German grammar were simpler to understand than equations full of odd Greek letters, I have been comfortable with the study of language as opposed to the study of weird scientific stuff. German extended adjective constructions, for instance, are a lot easier to understand than the physics of supernovas (supernovae? supernovi? whatever), and seem to me to be of more practical use. After all, knowing all about particle physics won't help you order a beer and a half chicken in a Gasthaus.

But that's not to say that high-end physics and other arcane scientific concepts and ideas aren't interesting. Three scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics this year for their work in proving that the expansion of the universe is increasing over time, rather than slowing down as current theories would predict. No one can explain why this should be so, but the current culprit of choice appears to be something called dark energy, theorized on the basis of data collected by NASA satellites to be the "dominant constituent of the universe." You can read a fascinating, relatively easy-to-understand explanation of the concept of dark energy in this article by Meg Urry titled Dark Energy: Science's Biggest Mystery.

It seems to me, though, that dark energy is far more pervasive than even the eggheadiest scientists would have predicted. Consider Dr Urry's contention in her article that "dark energy is the dominant constituent of the universe." Living in the orbit of the intellectual black hole of Washington, DC, when I think of "dominant constituents," I naturally think of those wealthy campaign contributors who, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, are able to purchase elections with anonymous impunity and thereby gain the sort of access to elected representatives unavailable to common pond scum like you and I. Now that's dark energy at work.

And what about those supernovas, or novae, or whatever? These are vast explosions that spew out enormous quantities of hot gas and wasted energy, larger even than Rush Limbaugh and the entire House of Representatives together can produce, if you can believe it.

Dr Urry writes in her article that she was once asked by a fellow physics professor, "Doesn't this just keep you up at night, wondering what this stuff (dark energy) could be?"

She answers that, "It's keeping a lot of us up at night."

But that's the beauty of being a scientist ... you can stay awake nights wondering about the dark energy that speeds up the expansion of the universe, rather than the dark energy that powers a useless, do-nothing Congress and an industry dedicated to stirring political pots and generating waste heat rather than useful light. The Bible records in Chapter 1 of Genesis ...

3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that [it was] good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

It doesn't mention dark energy. But it does mention dividing the light from the darkness.

And wouldn't it be nice if some of that dark energy swirling around Capitol Hill could be used to lighten up the darkness of our current social and economic morass?

Don't hold your breath.

Have a good day. May your energy be light, rather than dark. More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

Dark energy will only be figured out with enough dork energy.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

A 19th century scientist, Michael Faraday, was once asked by William Gladstone of what use was electricity. Faraday answered, "Why some day you might be able to tax it." Now there was a scientist who knew where the priorities of politicians were!