The Standard Model comes under question
October 22nd 2011
The Standard Model has been a mainstay of physics for over one hundred years. A lot of it has been empirically demonstrated through a variety of experiments, and never shown to be false. For ANY theory to last that long without serious challenge is amazing, especially given how much our knowledge of the universe has expanded in just the past twenty years.
As a result, the Standard Model has gotten a little frayed around the edges. In fact, recent events pose the possibility that after all this time, physicists may have to discard Einstein and start from scratch, a truly shocking possibility.
A little over ten years ago, I discussed some of the problems I was having in coming to grips with modern physics in an essay entitled “…Well, if you say so” I acknowledged then, as now, that I do not possess the math skills needed to really understand the equations that underlie the Standard Model, although I’m in better shape then most people in that I know the three laws of Kepler and Newton, can work out the Lorentz Contractions, and possess a basic working understanding of Special Relativity.
In short, I have just enough knowledge to be a danger to myself.
Don’t mistake me for an expert. On the other hand, you’ll be happy to know that I don’t reject science because of Revealed Truths from God, Allah, St. Germain, the Lemurians or the Loch Ness monster. If I have a dog in this fight, it’s nothing more than my own sense of curiosity.
Since I wrote that piece a decade ago, a lot of new discoveries have come along that have a jarring impact on what we think we know.
There was a fairly recent BBC documentary “Horizon: Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?” and this piece leans on it heavily for the following. If you know someone who can send you a copy, I strongly recommend it. BBC still makes the best documentaries in the world.
The Big Bang, which the Cosmologists insist should be taken literally, says that the Big Bang created everything in less than a quadrillionth of a second, and created the entire universe, some 14 billion light years in diameter. They dodge around the blatant violation of the speed of light by explaining that time and space were created at the same instant, and all force and matter was embedded in it. People think of it as an explosion, but that’s not quite right. It’s a bit more like a room brightening when a light is switched on, only far faster than light from that bulb could travel to the furthest corner of the room. It helps if you stipulate that the room didn’t even exist until the light came on. Or, for that matter, the light.
Sounds suspiciously biblical, doesn’t it? I understand the theory, and the evidence that supports the theory. But there are problems.
One such problem is that of the universe expanding. It isn’t doing it right. The theory is that the universe has to have some sort of gravitational locus, a center, presumably but not necessarily where the Big Bang occurred. Therefore the rate of expansion should be slowing, much the way that a rock tossed into the air will slow as it rises and eventually begin falling back. Throw the rock hard enough and it doesn’t come back, although its rate of travel decreases as long as the earth’s gravity acts on it.
The rate of expansion in the universe is increasing instead. Physicists, groping for an answer, have come up with a suggestion: “dark energy.” Something is working against gravity to force the universe to expand faster. Since they know nothing of such a thing, they hung the label on it and went about trying to discover it.
Gravity is a very weak, albeit persistent force, and so if there is a force that can overcome it like that, it raises the question why any mass would remain coalesced in the first place. If it acts on the entire universe, why can’t we measure its effects on earth, and if it treats earth the same as the universe, why isn’t the earth a growing cloud of thin atomic dust?
It gets worse.
Gravity is seen as a constant throughout the universe, but that is now under grave doubt.
Galaxies rotate much faster than they should. In fact, the entire universe behaves like it has far more mass than we can see, and scientists have labeled that “dark matter.” It is what has led scientists to conclude that black holes – objects with gravitational fields so intense not even light can escape – lie at the middle of all galaxies.
We know that the universe is a lot more crowded than we thought 50 years ago. Vast clouds of hydrogen lie throughout the Milky Way, hiding 90% of it from visual view, clouds so huge that they are opaque, even though you could fly through one at nearly the speed of light and never know it was there. We now know that there’s a lot of free-floating matter between galaxies, too. Which means we’ve accounted for about 10% of the matter that theory says ought to be there.
Present theory claims that there are twenty-four particles that are needed to make the supersymmetry string theory model work, one of which might be the “dark matter” particle. But we can’t see them or measure them. They pass right through everything. Well, maybe Jesus magicked them or something.
It gets worse.
There are well-known laws regarding orbits. The rate of an orbit is the relationship between the mass of two or more objects, and their proximity to one another. Closer objects rotate faster than further objects. It isn’t just that it follows a smaller circle: inner objects move faster, too. In our own solar system, Mercury zips along at nearly 108,000 miles an hour. Earth moves at a more sedate 68,000 miles an hour, and former planet Pluto crawls at 10,000 miles an hour.
But scientists studying nearby galaxies discovered that not only are the inner stars orbiting much faster than expected, but about a third the way out in some galaxies, all the stars do something very peculiar. They all orbit at the same velocity, regardless of distance. The inner stars still orbit faster since they have the inside track, but that shouldn’t be happening at all, and nobody has come up with an explanation for this, other than to suggest “dark gravity.” Something is making gravity behave differently in those galaxies.
This is beginning to remind me of the old Superman comics. Superman is exposed to red kryptonite, which creates an evil doppelgänger of him for 24 hours. Scientists wonder what to call this monster so people will know which is the good Superman and which is the evil Superman, as if the inverted colors on the union suit wasn’t enough of a clue. One arises, pointing a finger in the air to signify excitement and elevated self esteem: “I know! We’ll call him Dark Superman!” Well, they had an audience willing to believe that being under a brighter sun could make you immune to bullets. Physicists have a tougher audience.
It gets worse.
There’s an area of the universe where a lot of galaxies – millions of them – are converging while the rest of the universe is expanding. What’s more, they are converging at an incredible rate of speed, sometimes approaching the speed of light. The variation doesn’t seem to be linked to any proximity between said galaxy and wherever it is going, and even more perplexing, the galaxies aren’t appearing to be pulled apart by their own tidal forces as they speed toward the mystery rendezvous. In other words, this mystery force is acting on all stars in a galaxy, regardless of where they are in that orbit around that galaxy. Nor is there any sign of tidal locking, as has happened to our Moon with us.
They’ve come up with a name for this, and it won’t be a big surprise: Dark Flow.
This is all quite unexplainable by the Standard Model, and in the physics realm many are beginning to wonder if the model needs a major overhaul. It’s done a magnificent job of explaining what we see for one hundred years, but we keep seeing new stuff that it doesn’t quite cover. Either there is a lot of dark matter, dark energy, dark gravity, dark flow, and red kryptonite, or the standard model is wrong in some elemental way.
I’m not in a position to judge that. I don’t know enough to even have a strong opinion. But obviously our knowledge is far from complete on the issue.
It gets worse.
Nothing is faster than light. Light moves in a vacuum at 299,792,458 meters per second. That it is the ultimate speed limit was the central premise of the standard model.
Until last month. Then Italian physicists announced that they have measured neutrinos moving at a clip of slightly over 300 million meters per second. That’s not a big enough violation to make the read out flash red on a cop’s radar gun, but it’s a profound contradiction to physics.
Geoff Brumfiel, writing for Nature.com, put it this way: “The experiment is called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), and lies 1,400 metres underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. It is designed to study a beam of neutrinos coming from CERN, Europe’s premier high-energy physics laboratory located 730 kilometres away near Geneva, Switzerland. Neutrinos are fundamental particles that are electrically neutral, rarely interact with other matter, and have a vanishingly small mass. But they are all around us — the Sun produces so many neutrinos as a by-product of nuclear reactions that many billions pass through your eye every second.
The 1,800-tonne OPERA detector is a complex array of electronics and photographic emulsion plates, but the new result is simple — the neutrinos are arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows. ‘We are shocked,’ says Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and OPERA’s spokesman.”
The Gran Sasso people had a pretty good idea what the ramifications of such an announcement would be, and didn’t want to end up like those cold fusion guys. So they ran the tests sixteen thousand times over a two year period. Brumfiel writes, “Given all this, they believe the result has a significance of six-sigma — the physicists’ way of saying it is certainly correct.”
Er, fellows? You know that thing about c being a universal constant? Well, funny thing…
There is one thing that saves the Standard Model, though. At the quantum level, not only can anything happen, but anything must happen. Cats really can be or not be simultaneously, the negative value of a factored equation “exists” just as much as the positive value, and everything is constant except our ability to ascertain that it is constant.
So it’s not time to toss the model out just yet. But it tells us a lot more about what we don’t know as opposed to what we think we know.
“…Well, if you say so”
Two great mysteries edge closer to being answered
By Bryan Zepp Jamieson
The cool thing about science is that when the shamans make predictions, they tend to come about. I’m not talking about eclipses, which are a fairly simple matter of orbital mechanics. I’m not talking about the rate of decay of a radioactive substance, which is just a matter of figuring out a constant, and remembering that it pertains to a particular element. That’s ordinary, humdrum stuff that comes easily to us midgets as we stand upon the shoulders of giants.
No, I’m talking about when scientists develop a theory, and extrapolate from it. This is where they differ from the religious shamans, in that they formulate a theory and then say, “if this theory is valid, then we should expect to find this if we look here.” Then they run out and look, and sure enough, there’s a stable transuranic, or there’s a outline of a feather in the dinosaur bones, and there’s a layer of iridium pretty much world wide from 69 million years ago when the universe smacked us a good one upside the head.
Of course, then there’s physics. Scientists talk about the Big Bang, Superstring theory, and “vacuum force”, and we mortals all exchange doubtful glances and say, “well, if you say so…”
Last year, the Los Angeles Times did a feature story on superstring theory. I pointed it out to a buddy of mine, a physician with a solid backing in science, and he ran out and got a copy for himself. We got together a couple of days later and compared notes. He asked me what I thought.
“Well, to tell the truth, I understood maybe one tenth of what I read.”
My friend nodded and admitted that he was in the same boat. It was actually a pretty funny situation, since for both of us, a pet gripe is how much they’ve dumbed down the newspapers in America. That didn’t appear to be the issue here. I normally grasp new concepts pretty rapidly, but superstring theory left me feeling like the understudy at Gumby Theatre, or the stunt double for Adam Sandler.
The problem wasn’t that the feature writer was inept; it was simply that the whole notion of superstring theory is so outre, so far removed from our quotidian experiences, and so complex, that we couldn’t grasp it.
I think I first realized how inaccurate personal perceptions were when I was contemplating the notion of neutronium–degenerate matter compressed to its theoretical atomic maximum density. The stuff at the center of black holes, we think. One cubic centimeter would weigh umphety-million pounds. That would make it millions of times more dense than my desk, atoms squeezed down…
No. That’s not right. The atoms were the same size. Only the distance between them was reduced. In wood, each atom is somewhere in an area of a molecule thousands of times its own size, and each molecule is somewhere in an area of empty space thousands of times its own size. The desk I was resting my eyes on was, in reality, a very thin cloud of atoms. What I perceived as a desk was mostly not there. It was vacuum.
I wasn’t even on drugs.
After that, I stopped trying to visualize relativity, and just trusted what the math said. I wasn’t any big math genius, making it only through pre-calc, and that just barely. But I had enough that I could follow the equations to their inevitable conclusion, enough that I understood what it was doing, even if I could never picture it.
Like most people who don’t work at math-intensive jobs after college, my math slipped away, reducing me eventually to a mathematical universe of “one,” “two,” “three,” and “many.”
This left me superbly unequipped to deal with the dauntingly esoteric math involved in superstring theory. If asked about it, I’m reduced to a confused shrug and a vague mumble of “if you say so.”
The universe has gotten a lot more complex than it was when I was in college, back when Newton’s laws were considered something more than local approximations of our misperceptions. E=mc2 was considered a constant, as was Chandrasekhar’s Limit and the inverse-square law. Science Fiction writers pulled rabbits out of hats through the inevitability of Newtonian physics.
There were already bugger factors in all this. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Copenhagen experiments and Schrodinger’s Cat led to many a coffee-soaked night arguing the ineffabilities of a perverse universe with earnest coeds and gnawing the legs off fundamentalists.
But like most people, I encounter the arcana of the new universe with the same puzzled consternation that a primitive tribesman might feel when, stepping into a clearing, he encounters a glittering, dancing orrery and sits and watches the graceful golden arcs and tries to surmise its purpose. “Me Zepp. My brain hurts.”
There’s a lot of wonderful and fanciful notions about our universe that weren’t around when I was a kid, and the planets, mysterious abodes of strange lifeforms and aliens. It was a pretty good universe, but it suffered from a massive lack of knowledge, and failure of imagination.
Now there are black holes, pulsars, X-ray stars, colliding galaxies. Those are the easy ones. There is The Superstring theory (I admit I don’t even know what superstrings are supposed to DO–something about multidimensional (17, is it?) harmonic vibrations), “anti gravity,” “anti light,” “dark matter,” and, of course, the Big Bang.
The Big Bang, at first, seemed easy enough. All matter was compressed into a ball, and one day it blew apart, spinning off all the galaxies and nebulae and 1964 Ford Falcons in the universe. That was possible to visualize, even if grasping the scale was a bit hard.
But then they refined it a bit. The universe started with a point. Literally. The whole thing was in a point of subatomic size. The whole universe, they insist, sprang from an object smaller than Putsch’s brain.
If you say so.
Ouch. I assumed they were working from a mathematical construct. From a gravitational viewpoint, the one used for orbital calculations, “Earth” is considered a point at the exact center of the planet’s mass. This is quite accurate and very useful, provided you plan to orbit at least 8,050 miles above that point. Any nearer, and the results may vary, since the actual, non-point planet extends an average of 7,926 miles above that point, and then there’s another 100 or so miles of atmosphere to consider. I wouldn’t recommend attempting an orbit 7,925 miles above the point. Like the gravitational point known as “Earth”, this Big Bang theory seemed awfully hypothetical.
Well, those factoring problems we all did in high school algebra always had two answers. (X+2) (Y-5), that sort of thing. The problems had real world applications beyond tormenting the football team, but in the real world, only one of the two answers had validity. Yet both answers were equally correct. Hypothetically. You had to accept the hypothetical to determine the “real.”
One problem the astrophysicists had with the theory was that the universe would have been extraordinarily hot, and then cooled enough for the gas to coalesce into matter–stars, galaxies, etc. Once that occurred, there should be an ionizing effect that would result in vast clouds of neutral hydrogen out near the edges of the universe.
It was one of those questions which the universe stubbornly refused to answer. For 35 years, astronomers scanned spectrographs for the tell-tale signs of such a cloud (called “The Gunn-Peterson effect”) with no success. Scientists insisted that for the Big Bang theory to be valid, it HAD to be there.
That’s another way science differs from religion. When a belief is shaken by inconvenient fact, in science, the search for the fact is continued until scientists are satisfied they’ve found it, or they discard the theory as flawed. Religion tends to make the inconvenient facts go away, like the Crab Nebula explosion, expunged from all records in Europe once the Catholic Church realized the new star in the sky so bright it was visible by daylight for 13 days did not, as they had proclaimed, herald the second coming.
For 35 years, scientists searched for the Gunn-Peterson effect, and avoided presumptions.
And then scientists at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a vast project designed to map and record every object in the sky (some 200 million at this point that we can see), found it. It’s very dim, and very distant, and the oldest thing in the Universe, between 10 and 17 billion years old. (The earth is 4.6 billion years old. Strom Thurmond is only 98 years old.) But careful measurements, replicated many times, make it clear: it’s there, and it’s evidence that the Big Bang theory, hypotheticality notwithstanding, is valid.
That’s the cool thing about science. If you don’t understand the evidence, you are free to disbelieve. Nobody is threatening you with eternal damnation or being burned at the stake if you don’t believe in the Big Bang theory.
I don’t have to believe in the Big Bang theory. But science will use reasoning to form postulates, and then assert those postulates openly, and let the evidence fall where it may. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey might not have found that vague mist at the borders of the universe, and Big Bang would have been deader than phrenology in the scientific community. Instead, it continues to twist our minds and perceptions with a vision of the opening of the universe far grander and more complex than any proffered by the religious shamans. What creation theory offers the incredible vista of a ever-expanding universe with billions of galaxies coming from a point 17 billion years ago and moving outward forever? Or even the simple elegance and grace of the Newtonian physics of the orrery mentioned above?
Since I started writing this, less than 24 hours earlier, a report has emerged strongly supporting the idea, inconceivable just ten years ago, that the bleak marches between worlds might be heavily populated with life. The article read as follows:
Evidence of living bacterial cells entering the Earth’s upper atmosphere from space has come from a joint project involving Indian and UK scientists.
Samples of stratospheric air were collected on January 21 under the most stringent aseptic conditions by Indian scientists using the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cryogenic sampler payload flown on balloons from the Tata Institute Balloon Launching facility in Hyderabad.
Part of the samples sent to Cardiff were analyzed by a team at Cardiff University led by Professor David Lloyd, assisted by Melanie Harris.
Commenting on the results, Professor Wickramasinghe said, “There is now unambiguous evidence for the presence of clumps of living cells in air samples from as high as 41 kilometers, well above the local tropopause (16 km), above which no air from lower down would normally be transported.”
The detection was made using a fluorescent cyanine dye which is only taken up by the membranes of living cells. The variation with height of the distribution of such cells indicates strongly that the clumps of bacterial cells are falling from space.
The daily input of such biological material is provisionally estimated as about one third of a ton over the entire planet.
His new evidence provides strong support for the Panspermia theory of Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe.
“We have argued for more than two decades that terrestrial life was brought down to Earth by comets and that cometary material containing microorganisms must still be reaching us in large quantities,” Professor Wickramasinghe said.
[Article available here]
Well, “if you say so.” Personally, I’ll wait until someone does the DNA on these beasties and sees if they are related to anything down here. I’ll wait until they reexamine the moon rocks, because if they are falling here at the rate of a third of a ton a day (that’s a lot of bugs), then the Moon should be hip deep in them in those polar dips where the sun never shines. Even the rest of the surface should show something.
If, in a few years, I open my paper and read that they’ve examined some of these things, and determined that they are unrelated to any known terrestrial life form, then I’ll have a different response.