Pic of the day: New Scientist, May 11 2002.
I stayed fairly long at work today (but I came in late, at least). After work I went straight to ultrasound treatment for my arm. It still hurts, even if not as bad as a month ago. Sadly, between work and a couple e-mails, I don't have much typing hand left for this entry. Besides, it is late.
I've been reading New Scientist again. It bears repeating that this UK magazine is not in any way "New Age" despite its name. It is on the serious side for a popular science magazine, as can be seen from its advertisements: There are lots of job ads, instead of the full page glossy ads for sex-ed videos and brain amplifiers and such that you will often find in overly popular science magazines.
Even so, or perhaps just because of this, the magazine often publishes findings that appear controversial, almost shocking. Like in this issue, the cover article is about a long series of observations that indicate that some constants in cosmology are, after all, not constant at all. Most notably alpha, the fine structure constant. Evidently certain atoms 12 billion years ago absorbed slightly different wavelengths than today. This may seem esoteric at best to the casual reader, but the implications are horrifying if it is true. It would basically mean that our best unified theories of cosmology are on the level of Ptolemay's epicycles: These explained the movements of the planets by introducing reverse movements that corresponded to observation; but when telescopes arrived it all fell apart because it did not include the underlying force, gravity.
Unless we have a massive misreading of instruments or a massive software glitch over the last couple years, it may be that we have actually no idea of the basic nature of the universe. In fact, this is not the first such blow to the brain of cosmology: A couple years ago we got a similar effect from observations that indicated the universe is expanding faster and faster, instead of slower and slower. This led to cosmologists adding a new constant that was simply based on observation, with no theoretical foundation at all. Until then, there had been no need for "quintessence" as this energy is now called. So it wasn't there. Now that the universe is expanding, it is supposed to have always been there, but no one knows what it is or what else it does except for pumping up the universe.
Life goes on, regardless of cosmological constants becoming variables. Well, at least it goes on until 2005, when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN attempts to generate microscopic black holes. According to our current theories, which may be dead wrong, these holes will evaporate instantly in a flash of Hawking Radiation. Failing that, they may eat the planet and remove it from the universe as we know it.
I feel that the current spate of cosmic uncertainty would make NOW a good time to stop trying to pick the lock on God's toolkit. Leave that to a future generation - it is better than not having any future generations at all. Science is good ... but observation before experimentation.
Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.