A Matter Darkly

A hard limit on the mass of dark matter has been set.  So that’s cool, right?

There are a couple things that I like about this story.  First, consider that this hard limit is set at 40 giga-electron volts.  This is a unit of measurement so tasty and geeky that it makes my brain noodles just tingle with excitement.  It’s like the ultimate in nerd speak because fewer than 1% of the world’s population actually know what it means.  They are the 1%.

Next, consider the following passage:

“The observational measurements are important because they cast doubt on recent results from dark matter collaborations that have reported detecting the elusive particle in underground experiments. Those collaborations — DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT and CRESST — say they found dark matter with masses ranging from 7 to 12 GeV, less than the limit determined by the Brown physicists.”

There are two ways that you can read this, depending on how you define the word “underground.”  On the one hand, there is my basic assumption that we have a whole subculture of scientists who wear baggy pants and like to skateboard. Not to mention, they are making all sorts of frankly audacious claims about the mass of WIMPS.  It makes DAMA/LIBRA, CoGeNT, and CRESST sound like the names of gangs. 7-12 GeV?  Those damned kids and their crazy ideas.

Indeed, this is how I initially read the article.  And then I realized that they were probably just referring to the fact that these experiments took place underground.  As in, in a cave.  The 40 GeV result is from data collected from outerspace.  That dichotomy makes a lot more sense.  But still, it’s an important lesson about the ambiguity of language.

But perhaps the most important lesson here is in the numbers themselves.  A frequently overlooked issue surrounding Dark Matter is the actual source of its mystery.  It does not interact except with its gravity.  As we all know, gravity is by far the weakest of the forces.  Dark Matter neither reflects nor emits electromagnetic radiation of any kind.  It is only detectable by its gravitational effects.

And yet, it accounts for around 23 percent of the universe.  Ordinary matter, the stuff we deal with on a day to day basis, the stuff we have wars over and have sex with, only makes up 4%.  Dark Energy, a far more mysterious substance which is responsible for the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, accounts for the rest of the universe.  Over 70%.

So, what to make of this?  There are two ways you can look at it.  On the one hand, you can relish the mystery that the majority of the universe is made up of something completely intangible and possibly unknowable.  This is admirable.  It is the source of all sorts of sci-fi tropes and wild flights of fancy.

But two important facts needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to Dark Stuff, which accounts for some 96% of reality: they don’t do anything and they are the rule, rather than the exception.  Put another way, ordinary matter is the exception, the exciting stuff.  Dark Stuff is mundane and ordinary.

Indeed, the vast majority of the interesting things that happen in the universe happen as a result of interactions of ordinary matter.  Dark Stuff doesn’t do squat.

If I were a powerful scientist with a lot of clout, I might even be inclined re-label these things.  Dark Stuff–once it’s determined just what, exactly, it is–would be better renamed Mundane.  Ordinary matter, rather than being labeled as merely “ordinary” is actually the exciting stuff.  It might be far more appropriately termed “Bright Matter” and “Bright Energy.”  It is tiny in proportion, but it packs a hell of a kick.

I am a fan of Bright Matter.  I am made of it.  My body is star dust made flesh.

Ich bin aber Sternenstaub.

Is Humanity Screwed?

I have some problems with CNN. Not all of them involve Morning Express with Robin Meade. But many of them do. Her show is insipid and juvenile and irrelevant. I am willing to entertain the notion that there is a sort of cosmic radiation that alters our chemical processes at around the dawn hour which makes it impossible for a morning news show to be intelligent but also makes viewers continue to watch them despite this fact.

Anyway, the world is coming to an end. Update your twitter feeds accordingly.

I want to look at the state of the world in very general terms. Let me know if I’m missing some crucial detail (I may or may not tell you to piss of, but it’s worth a try). The conclusion is, of course, that we are fucked. Or maybe not.

What I want to do is lay out, in as simple a matter as possible, some of the problems that the world is facing. I will not defend any particular claim with any sort of argumentation. Instead, I am going to assume that at least the majority of them are actual, real problems and then explore the possible ramifications. To do this, I will adjust my normal paragraph chunking into a more direct, list-like form of communication. Behold, my bullet points of doom!

Shit that’s wrong with the world:

  • Economic turmoil
  • High unemployment
  • Loss of public safety net (by and large)
  • Political upheaval on huge scale
  • Human rights and social justice compromised daily
  • Environmental catastrophe
  • Slow degradation of ecosystems reaching critical point
  • Carbon levels at historic high (in human reckoning)
  • Record corporate profits
  • Corporate ethics is an oxymoron
  • Massive corruption in the highest places
  • Compromised political elite
  • Looney toons taking over congress
  • Peak oil looming
  • Peak water looming
  • Massive food shortages
  • Droughts and famine causing widespread food shortage
  • Food already in short supply
  • Disturbingly high rates of natural disaster
  • Extreme weather no longer extreme
  • Diseases cropping up faster than cures can be discovered
  • Pollution causing a whole slew of problems
  • Bees going extinct
  • Population skyrocketing, exacerbating all of the above
  • Blindness and apathy to all of the above on the part of huge portions of the electorate

Any one of these items would not be such a big deal. Humans are highly intelligent, resourceful, and generally reasonable and the problem would likely be like a fun little puzzle in one of the first few levels of a video game. Instead, we have a situation akin to playing Civilization V on the highest difficulty level.

Notice that I did not include global warming, opting instead for the more general term “pollution.” I must reiterate that I am making no real attempt to justify any particular point on the list. I’m not writing a goddamned book here. I am merely trying to make it next to impossible to dismiss the list outright without considerable difficulty. I am trying, as it were, to make the whole of the situation that humanity is facing, as undeniable as possible.

And so let’s assume that, in general, the list is correct. What does it mean for humanity? Are we, as I prematurely concluded, basically done? Have we screwed things up beyond recognition? Well, that depends. There are a couple of things yet to consider.

There is this whole idea amongst liberals like myself that we are in really deep trouble but if we act now, there is a chance that we can turn this supertanker around. We’ve been saying this for years. Basically, the idea that the situation (the environment, the economy, the state of social justice in this country, etc) can be fixed if people start doing something now. We are always talking about how much better the world could be if only we could get our acts together. NOW! And so, how strong is the force of social inertia? This is a question that may already have been answered and it is somewhere in the vicinity of very strong. Maybe not black-hole-gravity strong, but still really quite strong. Liberals must always hold fast to the notion that immediate action will yield results or else we are prone to fantastic bouts of depression, or worse, throwing up our hands and changing sides.

But let’s assume that our social inertia is too great and cannot be overcome (which is very possibly true). Our society is the Titanic, and we are about the collide with a glacier of our own creation. What are the consequences? Well, each item on the list becomes considerably worse. What does that mean?

Let’s just assume that it means the end of our civilization. Does that mean the end of the world? Hell no. The planet is fine. Cockroaches and lichens will survive the apocalypse with little trouble. Life as a thing is not in danger. The risk of our planet being sterilized is inconceivable. What about humans? Are we an endangered species? I don’t think so. Humans as a species will most likely survive the apocalypse as well. How many rungs down the socio/technological ladder we fall is a matter of some debate.

Is my family in danger? I should think almost certainly. You see, the only reason there are so many humans on this planet is the fact that we have a huge global support system which (more or less) feeds them all and keeps them alive just long enough to reproduce. When that collapses, there will be a brief (somewhere between months and a couple of years) period of complete and utter chaos. Disease will spike. Massive famine. Starvation. Cities will likely be hit the hardest. Rural communities will not be unaffected, however. They have largely forgotten how to perform subsistence farming to feed themselves through winter, relying mostly on the high-tech infrastructure which gives them iceberg lettuce in January.

So, there will be a massive die-off. Perhaps the world population of humans might level off at about a billion. I only say that because the thought of five billion humans dying in a short period of time is almost too much for me to comprehend. Hell, it might even be far worse than that. But it seems reasonable. The turn of the twentieth century saw a population of about 1.4 billion and best case scenario is a return to about a Victorian level of technology.

And so literally, five sixths of the world’s human population is likely to die if things get any worse. Since we are living in the middle of the greatest extinction event the world has ever seen I think it’s safe to say that there are many animal and plant species the will also suffer.

Indeed, the loss of the honeybee would likely drive humanity down to fewer than a million people (if not completely extinct), though I’d like to think that the bees will bounce back if humans die back a bit.

My dad tells me that I complain a lot. That I point out problems but never offer up solutions. Perhaps this is true. It’s a lot easier to spot a problem than to fix it. Anyone can tell you a radio is broken. Few could actually tell you how to fix it beyond buying a new one. But we can’t buy a new planet, can we? Can we?

But there are solutions to this problem. And most of them are not pretty, because most of them are necessary to turn the supertanker:

  • End our dependence on fossil fuels
  • End the drive toward nuclear power (beyond pure research)
  • Dramatically ramp public funding for renewable energy
  • Stop having so damned many babies
  • Stop destroying biodiversity in our food supply
  • Stop letting corporations determine public policy
  • Stop the “buy a new one” culture
  • End intolerance and bigotry
  • Embrace a socially liberal ideology

Granted, I am deliberately going for a utopian vision of the future here. I would even settle for, say, half of these things coming to pass. But what are the odds of even that happening? If we are completely honest with ourselves, what chance does our current civilization really have? In the long term? Zero. None at all.

But what about now? What about the near future? What about the next century? Is it still statistically different from zero? I really need someone out there to say yes and convince me that it’s true.

quelq’un m’a dit

How anti-matter is not anything like dark matter.

picard meets skywalker

I always sort of assumed that the galaxy far, far away (though, to be fair, all galaxies except the Milky Way are “far, far away”) was one of those theoretical galaxies made primarily out of anti-matter. Of course, if you lived in an anti-matter galaxy, you’d simply think of it as matter. To think that the Star Wars galaxy is made out of anti-matter doesn’t explain anything about the Force or anything. It just conjures up some interesting “what if?” scenarios.

Like what if Captain Picard met Luke Skywalker? It just seems to me that a messiah meeting a man of science would definitely be awkward. Though in this case, not for the obvious reasons.

So it’s often the case in science that you have two hypotheses that explain the same phenomenon. This is a good thing in most cases, because it means that there are multiple avenues in which research and experimentation can be conducted. Take, for example, the fact that there are a lot of unexplained gamma rays buzzing around the galaxy in an unexpected and unexplained distribution. It’s a mystery that’s been plaguing astronomers and physicists for some time.

You have two possible explanations for it: it’s either evidence of dark matter (matter that is undetectable and yet makes up the vast majority of the mass in the universe and has only been observed via its gravitational effects) or it’s not. In this case, it’s not. I am not altogether certain if it was an unexpected discovery or if the researchers were specifically testing this positron hypothesis.

I find it interesting because, by itself, the fact that these positrons are being generated in supernovae, flying for millions of years only to annihilate the first time they come into contact with normal matter, is not that significant–though very cool. It solves a nagging mystery that had, up until now, been considered possible evidence for dark matter. But one thing it does do, in the search for dark matter, is narrow the search down.

I’m not sure if this rules out the possibility that Dark Matter is made of Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs)–focusing the search on other possible forms that dark matter might take–or if WIMPs are still on the table.

In the end, it’s what you make of it. But dark matter, along with string theory and the Higgs boson, is one of those scientific enigmas that, if solved, would change our understanding of everything. And speaking of string theory, one of its predictions was confirmed and published. Totally sweet.

Singen Sie süße Lieder.

Why Fusion Power Isn’t Happening


In 1961, Kennedy said, “Hey, Russia. We saw your Sputnik, and that was cool. But hey, guess what? We’re going to put a dude on the moon. That’s right. That moon.”

And we did. In 1969, Neil Armstrong ambulated in a way that was at once small and giant, once again proving that distance is dependent on perception–without a doubt the most important discovery of the Apollo missions.

So that’s why things like this are really frustrating. Why is it that this so complicated? I would really like it if someone could explain to me why it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear reactor, when Wal-Mart can throw up a store in seven weeks? Is it a question of money? They’ve got the design already. What is it that costs so much?

We used to be able to set a goal and meet it. What went wrong? Is it a matter of money? Motivation? Are we simply not smart enough?

What is this barrier that’s preventing us from cranking out a working tokamak in six months? The design and the technology exist today. If it’s a problem of motivation, perhaps it’s that we don’t have anybody with a forceful enough personality to come out and say, “Here’s how shit’s going down, so listen up.” We need an Alexander. We need a Genghis. We need a freaking Kennedy. And none of the old, red-faced, boring Kennedys. We need the young Kennedy who told us we could land on the moon. Nuclear fusion should be a walk in the park by comparison. I had high hopes for Obama. I’m not seeing the results that I want, but I haven’t given up on him. Yet.

We know that there’s an astonishing amount of money locked up in hydrogen. The math is solid and so is the physics. It’s a given. It’s clean energy. It solves almost all of the energy problems that currently plague us. It’s as abundant as stray cats in Rome.

The deputy director of the project says, “you really need to know whether the major components work. It’s absolutely clear that this is the right approach.” I’m not so sure. But I can see a couple of different perspectives.

It’s entirely likely that this is a situation where we have too many hands in the pot. It’s great to see an international project that brings people together into a unified goal. But when that goal is just a huge, inefficient money sink, then it’s not serving anyone’s needs. My problem is the fact that this is actually something that we need. This needs to happen or we’re all screwed. Fifteen years is too long to wait for a solution to our budding energy crisis. We need it like yesterday.

Maybe it wasn’t Kennedy that was our motivator. Maybe it was the Russians. It was a threat that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon that really kicked the space race into high gear. What we need is the new millennium’s Russia. Terrorism is obviously not it because they’re not strong enough, not pervasive enough, and nobody really takes them seriously. There’s no palpable fear. We need a threat the size of Russia during the Cold War to drive us toward what we’re actually capable of. Alien invasion, maybe?

Perhaps the guy is right. Maybe the fusion project actually is too big to complete without the kind of bureaucratic machine behind this one. If that’s the case, then I have my doubts about whether we’re capable of such a feat. I mean, look at the Large Hadron Collider. It was proposed and approved in 1995. Fourteen years ago, we decided to build it. That means that it was theoretically possible for us to build it fifteen years ago. This means that technology has not improved in that time. It was beset by problems and delays and other nonsense and despite the fact that it was successfully activated, it broke pretty much right away.

If we extrapolate that out, assume that the same level of ineptitude is likely to plague this fusion project, there’s very little hope that this thing will be operational until 2050, far too late to solve any of our energy problems.

Our only option, as far as I can see, is to not hold our breaths on this one. Our current attitude toward goal-setting is pretty loose. In the 60’s we set goals and we met them. We don’t really do that so much anymore. Multiple sources of energy are going to be needed to fill the gaping hole left when oil prices get too high. Solar, wind, and possibly good old fashioned nuclear fission. Fusion is probably going to remain a pipe dream for some time yet.