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 Rush Limbaugh Insensitive?

If the title of this post, read in a surprised voice, is not even remotely funny, then perhaps your time might be better spent elsewhere on the internet. It’s not that I don’t want people to see things from my point of view, it’s just that I don’t know make that happen. What I mean is, no matter how many political discussions I have had (a lot), I am fairly certain that I have never, in all of my considerable years (30), actually convinced anyone of anything. And no matter how many political discussions I have, there is always this little voice in the back of my mind that says, in its own little way, “Could this other person, with whom I disagree, actually be right?” And then I have to go over all of my logic again just to make sure. And then I always settle into that little groove on the political spectrum that would properly be labeled “Ridiculously Liberal.” And then I wipe the sweat from my brow.

The point is, I don’t know that conservatives ever suffer from self-doubt. As an educated liberal, I assume this is because conservatives, as a rule, suffer from a sort of megalomania that stems from a political ideology based on selfishness, steeped in a religion that is just vague enough to make that seem like it’s a good thing. I do. Suffer from self-doubt, that is.

For what it’s worth.

So….Rush Limbaugh. Yeah, that guy. He said some stuff this week. And it was stupid and insensitive. I honestly don’t think there’s any arguing the point. His defense that he was actually mocking Diane Sawyer is actually very telling, in that it actually is a defensive tactic. Seeing as how a)it’s a lie: He was, in fact, making fun of Japanese people recycling in the face of adversity–watch the video again if you don’t believe me and b)he is pretty much the biggest prick in the world this side of Scott Walker and Glenn Beck. (Again, if this offends you, re-read the first sentence of the post and carefully consider whether you want to even bother leaving me a message in the comments section)

And so, seeing Rush on the defense can only be an unqualified “good.”

When I set out to write a post today, I didn’t have any particular thing in mind and, indeed, I had wanted to write about this and this. And honestly, there’s nothing less offensive than particle physics. Or is there?

I wonder if anyone might find the revelation that space might not actually be infinitely divisible offensive (see one of the above links to sciencedaily–really super neat stuff!). And therein lies the crux of the matter. Rush Limbaugh thinks that the Prius is stupid. This is based on the dubious logic that “nobody wants a Prius.” Obviously this is not true because I think it would be cool to have a Prius. And so what’s the real reason that Rush Limbaugh doesn’t like the Prius? I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the only thing that actually motivates conservatives in Congress and on Fox News (et al), is liberals. They hate things specifically because liberals like them. If I said, “Man, I hate stubbing my toe,” I have this theory that there is a conservative somewhere that is so bullheaded that he (or she) would immediately go and kick a boulder, just to show how fun it can be.

It’s interesting to note the relationship between Limbaugh’s view of the tragic tsunami in Japan and subsequent nuclear catastrophe and the conservative view of, say, the Big Bang. He actually believes that his god did this. Like on purpose. Who worships a god that does jerkish stuff like that? The thing is, conservatives look at the world and require it to be intelligible. They look at Big Bang Theory and see that it’s based on various conjectures which are, in turn based on a considerable amount of available evidence and then read their Bibles and say, “No way, I can’t deal with that kind of uncertainty. God did it.” But the fact of the matter is, we don’t know all of the details and ins and outs of the Big Bang because, hey, it happened like 13 billion years ago. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast a week ago.

What anti-science conservatives don’t seem to understand is that uncertainty about the universe doesn’t bother scientists. They are completely untroubled by the fact that the Big Bang is, at its most fundamental, a well-educated guess. They do not lose sleep over it. Not knowing the “why” of earthquakes/tsunamis/hurricanes, doesn’t bother atheists. We can look at it and say, “That’s nature. That’s life. It’s a terrible thing, though, so I’ll donate some money to help people pick up their lives.” A conservative will look at it as a an event that occurred as the result of someone’s conscious decision. And as a result of that, they find themselves in the precarious position of either a)believing in a god that is supposed to be infinitely loving but also has a sadistic and sociopathic streak or b)having to find a good reason why the eastern seaboard of Japan ought to have been demolished by a tsunami. God did it, therefore it must be justified.

Either way I find it unfathomable.

If you’ve read all this way, and have the inclination, the Red Cross is doing some very good things in the world today. Also, space might not be infinitely divisible (WTF? I know, right?) and also great strides are being made in the field of quantum condensates (super cool, if you know what I mean).

domo arigato

Hidden Doorways a Reality?


Click on the image to see it full size. I’m working on a new theme for the blog so that I can include larger format images. It might take some time.

This is pretty much exactly what would happen if William Shatner came ’round to tea at the Prime residence.

So I realized today that I have no really good reason for using Optimus Prime as the subject of so many of these comics (if you can call them that). Perhaps it’s that I see him as the sort of ideal outside observer. An alien not of us, but very sympathetic to us. He likes humans in a way that is not patronizing or insincere. He shows us–the inferior race–a kind of respect that is rare between humans.

Prime is the perfect idealist. His most famous quote (from the comics as well as the various Michael Bay films) was, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” On the one hand, it’s the sort of magnanimous statement that gives a person shivers, especially when uttered by the always earnest Peter Cullen. But it’s also, when one really deconstructs it, astonishingly prejudiced against beings that are less than sentient. Regardless, I’ve always wanted to identify with Optimus Prime and I respected his sage wisdom (and awesome robot-fu) as a child.

Perhaps I use him in so many comics because I happen to own an Optimus Prime action figure myself, which makes it easy to photograph him from any angle I want. Do you know how hard it is to find a photo of William Shatner in the perfect pose?

The subject of ‘Hidden Portals’ was spawned by a headline that I saw on Science Daily. It’s one of those headlines that really plays tricks on a guy like me. I read something like this and I get really excited. I imagine, of course, teleportation (something that would really put GM out of business). And, thus, that’s the idea that I explored in my art project.

But that’s not exactly what’s going on in the article. In fact, the article is further misleading in that, try as I might, it’s difficult to figure out what, exactly, these researchers actually accomplished. Upon further research into the matter, it turns out that what they have created is not an actual, workable prototype of a hidden doorway, but instead have built a functional conceptual model of a doorway that does not permit electromagnetic waves to pass through it, but would allow other entities (say, a person) to pass through. A mirror that you can walk through.

It’s actually really cool. But this is the thing that’s frustrating about science sometimes. They’ve proved that it’s theoretically possible, but they haven’t actually built it yet. My question is, of course, why the hell not?

It’s a curious thing about science. In fact, it’s the critical difference between science and applied science (i.e. technology). What use has a scientist for technology except as a way of furthering our understanding of the world? They’ve proved that it’s possible to build the doorway. In a sense, it doesn’t matter to the pure researcher that it ever actually gets built. For the pure researcher, actually building the device would only be important if it could be used in further research. This might be an oversimplification of the pure researcher, who is, of course, only human, but the point remains.

Technology, like for instance these new metamaterials involved in the creation of the hidden portal is, essentially, a means to an end. And I don’t mean this lightly. “Means to an end” is a concept that bears considerable weight to a philosopher. Technology is a means to an end. And it is nothing more than that. To a scientist, the end is knowledge and understanding. To everyone else, the end is often creature comfort or experiential. We use technology as a means to the end of enhancing our individual lives or the lives of others. Both are perfectly reasonable ways to use technology.

Without letting this become a lecture on ethics, I think I’d like to bring this whole thing full circle.

I’d like to bring this around to what I find so interesting about Optimus Prime. He is, in a sense, a piece of technology. But he is also a sentient being. He is the ideal exemplar of a higher being that treats lower beings with dignity and respect. He is a piece of technology that doesn’t treat humans as a means to an end. They are an end in themselves. To be treated as an end and not a means. That is the true meaning of “freedom,” folks.

Now, if only someone would build some mirror-portals so that I could buy one.

Freiheit ist nicht frei.

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.

Quantum Entanglement Demonstrated in a Mechanical System!


My favorite part about science is the fact that so much of it is, in essence, just for fun. The problem for grant writers must be spinning it so that it sounds like there’s a practical “use-value” for research.

One of the first posts for this blog was about a scene from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Specifically, Nietzsche was making a claim about the value of gold. Now, I had not expected the reaction that this claim would elicit from some of my friends. One friend in particular happens to be a stock trader and professional poker player, a guy who makes his living by understanding the value of money. He argued that gold is not useless because it has exchange-value.

I and other friends argued that there was a fundamental difference between use- and exchange-value. I mean, if gold had a use-value, it wouldn’t be used as currency. Of course, it’s often used today in many industries as a conductor, but that’s beside the point. Nietzsche did not write by electric light, so in his time, the analogy holds, and even to this day, only a tiny percentage of all the gold mined is used for industry. The vast majority of it is locked up in jewelry and hoards.

Of course, the comparison that I was trying to draw at the time relates directly to how scientific research is conducted and the reasons for conducting that research. For instance, a recent discovery has been all over the science news circuit as well as the blogosphere, and it’s kind of a big deal. But the take-away lesson of the story is kind of tricky.

Science always has a sort of “cool factor.” You hear about new a new kind of supernova that was discovered or this new quantum entanglement discovery (links above), and you consume that knowledge immediately. You are joyous. It’s a sort of cathartic experience. I mean, quantum entanglement in a mechanical system! That’s pretty rad, right? But then you ask the average reader of Scientific American what it means in practical terms and you might get a vague answer about quantum computers. Based on this discovery, however, that’s a really long way off. This discovery is cool despite its apparent uselessness. We like this kind of knowledge simply because it’s interesting and satisfies a need deep inside ourselves. A need to know something true about the world that we didn’t know before.

This is why scientists do this kind of research. The scientists working on the project are way more concerned with knowing things than making the world a better place. Or rather, they are trying to make the world a better place through expansion of knowledge because knowledge has an intrinsic value that is not easily defined.

“Hey, dudes, we’ve finally demonstrated quantum entanglement in a mechanical system!”
“Oh, dude, you rock!”
“Yeah, I know right? This is totally sweet in and of itself.”
“Yeah, man, the only thing we’re really interested in is continuing our research in this field!”
“Woo!! Bong rips for all!”

Or something like that. They want more grant money for pure research. But somehow they have to convince the people with the checkbooks that there’s a utilitarian reason for doing this sort of research. Again, some vague claim about computers that are orders of exponentially more powerful, couched in very careful rhetoric that doesn’t actually promise results anytime soon.

I mean, the LHC is the perfect example of this. They’re looking for evidence that the Higgs Boson exists. It might not! And whether it does or not, knowing will be way cooler than not knowing.

Science is not about progress. Science defies progress. Science shatters the myth of progress in many ways, which is why in some situations pure knowledge is not without its consequences. For instance, evolutionary theory defies the very concept of progress.

And so, quantum entanglement has been demonstrated in a mechanical system. This is totally sweet. It has no bearing on our lives, but we are overjoyed to know it. Maybe someday down the road, this knowledge will have use-value, but for the time being, research will continue and we will be happy for it. Because we are so damned curious. Like kittens.