Dark matter universe

June 6, 2017

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On the last day of my residence at the artists' colony Yaddo, I shared with my co-residents an excerpt from my book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. I read from the first chapter, in which I liken dark matter - matter present throughout the universe that is invisible to us because it doesn't emit or absorb light - to other entities that remain unnoticed but influence the workings of the world, from the bacterial cells in our bodies, which outnumber human cells by a factor of 10, to the myriad Internet communities and subcultures that thrive outside our awareness. The goal was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality.

I was gratified to observe the audience's increased comfort with dark matter and its unseen but important influences. But the most surprising and rewarding response came the following day, when Jefferson Pinder, a young African-American artist, stopped me as I was leaving and asked, "I know this might sound like a crazy question, but were you really talking about race?"

The crazy thing is that I was. People's attitude toward dark matter is bedeviled by the same instincts that influence their responses to different races, castes or classes whom they might not truly see but who are nonetheless essential to society. Jefferson understood that the real issue I was addressing was the transparency - both metaphorical and literal - of people, phenomena, particles, and forces that we don't necessarily appreciate but that are important to our shared reality.

The metaphor returned in a different guise in a seminar I teach at Harvard, which I begin with a discussion of how science advances, and how the optimal scientific description can depend on the frame of reference. The students relished the science, but the classroom discussion also took a surprising turn - into questions of empathy.

Race and class differences call for empathy largely because of our difficulties in understanding what we can't experience or see, including the often hidden cultural forces that animate other people and their communities. Such blindspots challenge us in the scientific realm too - but in ways that are usually more obvious and readily acknowledged. The world looks entirely different at the scale of the atom - or the Higgs boson - than it does when viewed from your chair or from space. This is why the rules of quantum mechanics can appear unintuitive or illogical. Their unfamiliarity makes them difficult to comprehend.

People relate best to scales they encounter in their daily lives, perhaps a millimeter to a kilometer in size - the scale our brain's visual system readily processes via optical wavelengths. As science and technology advance, sophisticated measuring instruments allow us to explore distances increasingly removed from our immediate experience. But our human blinders endure - the greater that distance, the more irrelevant the phenomena tend to seem.

Source: www.huffingtonpost.com
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But we are.
Dark Matter is the name for all matter that is not luminous, not visible as stars. But although there might be as much as ten times more mass hidden in dark matter than visible, it still is not a lot. A few dozen particles per m^3.

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