A great lesson in everything we don't know

December 26, 2006|By Ben A. Shaberman

At a recent National Association of Science Writers Conference in Baltimore, the "Lunch with a Scientist" session offered a menu of informal talks on a wide range of topics. Though my employer pays me to know and write about the retina - the thin piece of vision-critical tissue in the back of the eye - I decided to be a little derelict in my duties and learn about something completely new and unrelated.

I considered sitting at the table where "Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Lessons from an Amoeba" was being presented, but I figured that might lead to flashbacks of former girlfriends and images of pond scum - two topics that don't exactly arouse my appetite.

Instead, I decided to hang out where "Dark Energy and the History of Cosmic Expansion" was being discussed. Maybe I listened to a little too much Pink Floyd in high school, but anything cosmic grabs my attention, and I knew that the relatively new concept of dark energy was blowing away even the best astronomical minds.

Adam Riess from the Johns Hopkins University was the cosmic expert who gave our table of eight the lowdown on dark energy. Mr. Riess was intense and focused. It was clear to me that while I was in college, busy searching for the next party or rock concert, he was busy searching the skies for astronomical wonders.

Mr. Riess began his lunchtime talk by explaining that dark energy is this highly abundant stuff out in space that is causing our universe to expand. It seems to balance well with equally mysterious dark matter, creating a sort of a cosmic yin-yang. Beyond that, we don't know a whole lot more. We're not sure what dark energy and dark matter are, exactly; we only know they are dark, and they affect the movement of cosmic objects. Also, we don't know how long the universe will keep expanding, what will happen if it stops expanding, and whether there are other universes out there.

I was blown away even before I finished my appetizer, struck by the realization that when it comes right down to it, we don't know how the heck we got here, nor do we know where we're going.

But Mr. Riess was just getting warmed up. He went on to talk about the "Anthropic Principle," which offers an explanation of why all the constants and forces of the universe happen to work just right to support cosmic harmony and life on our planet. If there were just minor deviations in the strength of gravity, or the weight of protons or neutrons in atoms, our universe wouldn't have held up. Also, if ice didn't float, our oceans would freeze from the bottom up and the surface of the Earth would be frozen.

Of course, those who profess creationism or Intelligent Design think they have the answer to why things in universe worked out so well, but for the hard-core scientists looking for a scientific explanation, the Anthropic Principle is one possibility. The Anthropic Principle suggests that we - our universe and everything in it - are lucky. That is, there have been a zillion big bangs, and the one that created our universe, with all its nicely coordinated constants and forces, just happened to work out. We hit the cosmic lottery.

Keep in mind that the Anthropic Principle is a theory, and the guys who proposed this idea don't suggest that it is anything more. Maybe someday, new discoveries will support or refute this supposition.

Mr. Riess concluded his discussion by giving each of us a photo he had taken using the Hubble Space Telescope. I got a great, glossy picture of Spiral Galaxy NGC 3370. (I shudder to think what the people at the amoeba table got as parting gifts.)

Though I was thrilled to learn so many new things about the cosmos, I was equally impressed to hear about all the things we don't know. At a time when our political leaders and the media espouse so much certainty about virtually everything, it was refreshing to hear an intelligent, level-headed guy acknowledge all the stuff we don't know. That hourlong lunch helped me appreciate the beauty of the mystery we live in. Isn't that one of the great things about being a human on this Earth - to wonder, search and discover?

Einstein put it well when he said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed."

Ben A. Shaberman is a writer living in Baltimore. Visit his Web site at www.shaberman.com or e-mail benshaberman@aol.com.

Columnist Trudy Rubin will return next week. Columnist Clarence Page will return on Friday.

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