Sunday, November 23, 2008

Oh, So Now You Tell Me There Might Be No Black Holes? by Anthony McCarthy

The scare story about the new Hadron Collider generating tiny black holes that might eventually grow and swallow the earth didn’t exactly keep me up nights. But they did provide some insomniac diversions. I’m at a time of life when I’d often rather have my atoms torn apart in a black hole then get by on three hours sleep again.

Most of my ruminations took the form of whether or not scientists who believed their making Earth eating black holes were a remote possibility might not think that their curiosity, or more likely, very temporary glory, wouldn’t be worth us all taking the risk. Last I heard the guy trying to sue to stop them hadn’t done his math correctly and his claims were unfounded, not that I’d know. But maybe there’s even less to worry about, at this point, than we might imagine.

This book review by George Scialabba has some thought provoking, if not mind blowing, ideas in it. Most interesting for stove side rumination on an icy cold night might be this one:

The first problem Einstein encountered was internal to his original theory of general relativity. The theory predicted that some stars would develop infinite gravity and density, collapsing inward and becoming "black holes" from which no information could escape. The freakish character of black holes vexed Einstein, who never accepted their existence. The next obstacle was the discovery that many galaxies within galactic clusters are moving at a speed that should lead them to break away from the cluster. But they don't. The only explanation compatible with constant gravitational attraction (which Newton and Einstein assumed) was the presence of a large amount of invisible, undetectable matter: "dark matter." Finally, 10 years ago, several astronomers claimed to have discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing rather than decreasing. The only explanation seemed to be a vast quantity of invisible, "dark" energy with negative pressure, which would counter the braking force of gravity. Together, dark matter and dark energy supposedly make up 96 percent of the universe. If they exist.

Physicists have reluctantly accepted these anomalies for the sake of preserving Einstein's venerable theory of gravity, with its assumption of constant gravitational attraction. But neither black holes nor dark matter has ever been detected. Moffat cuts the Gordian knot, proposing a Modified Gravity Theory, or MOG. He postulates a new "fifth force," carried by a new particle, the "phion." MOG explains the varying strength of gravitational attraction without any need for black holes or dark stars. It also undermines string theory, most physicists' current candidate for a Theory of Everything. Finally, it suggests that the universe did not begin with a Big Bang but may be "eternal" and "dynamically evolving."

It's a bold theory, and Moffat acknowledges that most physicists are skeptical. But data from the new Large Hadron Collider and ongoing galaxy surveys may soon settle the question. Stay tuned.

In my youth it used to be annoying how cosmologists would go from the big crunch to the infinite evaporation of the universe with such ease and assurance. Then the spectacle of them doing the ultimate back and forth turned fun. My friends and family, those mostly in the biological sciences, hold a grudge against the Lords of Creation and their big budgets, they still find this aggravating. Being just a failed piano player, I can sit back and enjoy the show. I sincerely hope that the data are provocative but inconclusive well into the future. I’m with Old Sneep in Robert McClosky’s book “Lentil”. Everyone needs taking down a peg or two, those highest up in the social scale most of all.