One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

Dark matter and dark energy are more directly motivated by observations of the real world. Dark matter is apparently needed to account for the gravitational effects that seem to come from parts of space where no ordinary matter is visible, or not enough to explain the tug. For example, rotating galaxies seem to have some additional source of gravitational attraction, beyond the visible stars and gas, that stops them from flying apart. The “lensing” effect where distant astrophysical objects get distorted by the gravitational warping of spacetime also seems to demand this invisible form of matter. But dark matter does not exist in the usual sense, in that it has not been seen and there are no theories that can convincingly explain or demand its existence. Dark energy too is a kind of “stuff” required to explain the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, discovered by astronomers observing far-away objects in the mid-1990s. But it is just a name for a puzzle, without any direct detection.

It seems quite possible that dark energy, and perhaps dark matter too, will turn out to be like Crookes’ “dark space” and “radiant energy”: not exactly stuff, but symptoms of some hitherto unknown physical principle. These connections were exquisitely intuited by Philip Pullman in theHis Dark Materials trilogy, where (the title alone gives a clue) a mysterious substance called Dust is an amalgam of dark matter and Barrett’s quasi-sentient psychomeres, given a spiritual interpretation by the scientist-priests of Pullman’s alternative steampunk Oxford University who sense its presence using instruments evidently based on Crookes’ light mill.

Scientists, of course, are not just making things up, while leaning on the convenience of supposed invisibility. They are using dark matter and dark energy, and (if one is charitable) quantum many-worlds and branes, and other imperceptible and hypothetical realms, to perform an essential task: to plug gaps in their knowledge with notions they can grasp.

From Nautilus, a great publication for all the obvious reasons. This article was perfect. I’d definitely recommend it. If only I could write half as well. 

I suddenly bega…

I suddenly began rather to admire Frederic Prokosch twenty years ago when he visited me on the Hudson River where I lived. I took him to a party attended by a number of hicks and hacks and hoods from a nearby outpost of Academe. Naturally, they regarded Prokosch with contempt. They knew that he had once been famous in Amnesia but they had forgotten why. Anyway, Auden had won. And Auden had said that there can only be on poet per epoch.

A great deal was said about poetry; and some of it was said by poets. Teacher-poets, true, but poets nevertheless; winners of prizes (“They got more prizes now than they got poets” Philip Rahv, circa 1960, Amnesia). Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and of the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme position were taken. Finally, one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment, there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. “It’s Dante,” a full professor whispered to a full wife.

When Prokosch had finished, he said mildly, “Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

“Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

From “Frederick Prokosch,” by Gore Vidal. Appeared in New York Review of Books on May 12, 1983.