…nothing is true that cannot be proven — and therefore, it’s not true — Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Iceland’s Bell
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction because fiction arises from our collective imagination. An imagination spurred by our contact with the outside world. What is true though is that our knowledge of the universe is quite limited and therefore the inputs that fuel our imagination are confined by what we know. However, if we really discovered new secrets every day, we might realize that the truth is beyond our wildest imaginations. In a physicist’s world, one such discovery is the presence of “dark matter” which envelops us all but we cannot see the oceans of dark matter around us. This article provides an introduction to sub-atomic particles, our understanding of dark matter and concludes with the biggest take away to approaching our lives.
When people say “seeing is believing”, they are in for a massive surprise because the universe is composed of matter we cannot see i.e. Dark Matter. Is what we see the complete picture? definitively not. Therefore, the biggest stumbling block in our lives today is our own blindness both actual and metaphorical.
Many physicists over the years, such as Albert Michelson in 1894, wrongly proclaimed in not so many words that everything fundamental has already been discovered. He was not alone. Many breakthrough discoveries were followed by a similar proclamation that anything major worth discovering is already known to us now.
Pause there for a while and think of the times you thought that yourself — everyday I presume. I am equally guilty of thinking that I know a lot. Turns out, an introduction to particle physics can quickly change our beliefs.
Life At The Subatomic Level
We have always fantasized about parallel universes. Perhaps, they do exist even though we can’t confirm their existence. Dark matter is a similar topic.
There is a cosmos much deeper than our eyes can see and it exists at the subatomic level. The sub-atomic cosmos is a very interesting place containing a large variety of composite (protons, electrons and neutrons) particles which are in turn made up of elementary particles (quarks, leptons). As per current scientific theory elementary particles cannot be broken down further. So, elementary particles are the bottom most rung of the subatomic cosmos.
The Standard Model is an incomplete model but it goes a long way in explaining sub-atomic particles. In fact, particle physics itself is a constantly evolving body of knowledge.
While this article is not intended to be a ready reckoner on particle physics, I do think the diagram below will be truly useful in encapsulating our understanding of elementary particles.
The Higgs boson particle has often been called the “God particle”, from a 1993 book on the topic by Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman who says:
“This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…”
All things in the Universe are made up of matter and energy. Matter is composed of mass and energy is what is required to put that mass to work.
In Physics, mass–energy equivalence states that anything having mass has an equivalent amount of energy and vice versa, with these fundamental quantities directly relating to one another by Albert Einstein’s famous formula:
equivalent energy (E) can be calculated as the mass (m) multiplied by the speed of light (c = about 3×108 m/s) squared.
Now, let us understand the difference between “mass” and “matter”. In short, mass is the stuff that makes up matter i.e. matter is measured in terms of mass. For example, a scooter is matter which has a mass of x kilograms. Having sorted that one out, there is observable matter and unseen matter aka dark matter.
Dark matter is a type of matter that doesn’t interact with the electromagnetic spectrum i.e. it does not absorb, reflect or emit light and is therefore “dark” or unseen. Today, dark matter is what scientists call “hypothesized matter” . Therefore, it is both believable and unbelievable. The biggest evidence comes from observing galaxies and hypothesizing that there is some (dark) matter that has a gravitational effect on visible matter.
In 2016, the NA64 experiment was initiated by CERN to detect Dark Photons (introduced in the TEDx FultonStreet talk by James Beacham above). The search for Dark Photons is a truly interesting global challenge with wide ranging implications.
Although new ways of detecting dark matter are being constantly devised, there are 3 basic ways of detecting dark matter : direct, indirect and production.
- Direct detection is the observation of an interaction of a dark matter particle with a standard model one .
- Indirect detection is the observation of annihilation products that have no apparent standard model source and so are assumed to be the products of dark matter annihilation.
- Production is the measurement of missing energy and momentum in a particle interaction (generally a collider experiment) that could signify the creation of dark matter (this method must be very careful, as this is how the neutrinos are measured in collider experiments) (source: Sally Shaw in quantumdiaries.org)
When galactic clusters swallow other galactic clusters, stars from the swallowed cluster are torn apart and emit a light called “intracluster light”. Scientists feel this intracluster light can help us observe dark matter. Gravitational Lensing and accelerating antimatter in a space are some other techniques used to detect dark matter.
After the Big Bang which was a massive expansion of energy billions of years ago, that energy cooled down to form dark matter, dark energy and normal matter. Similar to Dark matter, very little is known about dark energy.
Dark energy is an energy that counteracts gravitational force and is considered to be largely responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. Together, dark matter and dark energy account for ~95% of the universe we live in. In other words, 95% of our universe is kind of unknown to us.
Requiem For An Abandoned Dream
This article is very close to my heart. It reminds me of an abandoned dream. Growing up in Mumbai, India, my dream was to pursue an education in nuclear physics. The reason I wanted to pursue that dream was to be able to recreate the sun on earth i.e. make nuclear fusion practical so that the world could derive all the energy it needs from the most abundant resource on the planet — water.
With that goal in mind, I led teams from my school at science fairs every year with reasonable success. As a child, those moments standing in front of professors and scientists explaining my science project felt like giving a voice to my heart. My passion for science was unstoppable.
Today, I realize how apolitical I was as a child and so are many children. As we grow up, the media — a machine hungry for titillating stories and our peer group often feed a frenzy of partisanship and divides along many lines. None of those divides are natural. They are all man made with absolutely no scientific basis save the vagaries of mankind.
For children, the pursuit of science for advancing humanity is a noble goal and one worth dedicating your life to. As we look around us today, we have to ask ourselves — when did we collectively abandon the scientific approach to life?. In other words, why did we stop being curios just for the sake of discovering something new?.
We live in a society which worships knowledge applied to the pursuit of money so much so that you see people asking for advice on what stocks to buy at funeral parlors.
I sincerely urge all my readers to never abandon a “scientific approach” to life which is an approach defined as:
“Scientific method is an empirical method of knowledge acquisition, which has characterized the development of natural science since at least the 17th century, involving careful observation, which includes rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions about how the world works influence how one interprets a percept; formulating hypotheses, via induction, based on such observations; experimental testing and measurement of deductions drawn from the hypotheses; and refinement (or elimination) of the hypotheses based on the experimental findings” (source: wikipedia)
I would also like to point out that science is a pure pursuit of knowledge but technology is the application of that knowledge. If you acquire knowledge that can be converted to practical applications in society, you are truly invaluable. Those applications may fail many times just like Edison failed a 1,000 times to invent the light bulb but every attempt should teach you something new and advance your knowledge further. However, not all knowledge should be acquired as a means to an end. Knowledge is an end in itself. It is the pursuit of the scientific method that opens the doorway to understanding our universe and in the process, advancing collective human awareness of the world around us. Many legendary scientists like Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci were simply curious.
On a spiritual level, matters of disbelief include matters of faith. We may have different beliefs but we universally agree that we need to do more good. Similarly, in particle physics, scientists don’t know much about dark matter but everyone universally agrees that they should continue the search.
My biggest regret was that I was a coward and that I abandoned the pursuit of an education in nuclear physics without trying hard enough. Even though I became a student of business, I keep reminding myself not to abandon the scientific approach. So, before you blame anyone else for your misfortunes, just shine a light at the darkness inside and question yourself — did I try hard enough? In most cases, you will find that the fault was yours and yours alone.
I wrote this article to show you the tip of the iceberg only because that’s the extent of my knowledge on particle physics. The real wonders are unseen and lie submerged and I continue my search for knowledge.
In this world of misinformation and biased media, the only real approach is the scientific method. Science itself changes because new evidence gets added to the body of scientific knowledge every day. It does not mean that science is flip flopping. It just means we are stumbling our way out of the darkness. So, it is perfectly fine to change your mind as new evidence comes to light.
However, I urge you to not be a coward, as I was, and let an unscientific approach become the biggest regret of your lives.