Is Our Innate Fear of the Dark Unknown Preventing a Scientific Revolution in Theoretical Physics?
Stephon Alexander Considers What We Know About Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Universe
We physicists have determined that over 95 percent of the matter and energy in the universe is invisible. We have branded this enigmatic stuff dark matter and dark energy; their discovery raised puzzles that shook the foundations of physical law. The gravitational effects of dark matter are observed in large halos surrounding galaxies and are critical to our current conception of how the large-scale arrangement of visible matter in the universe came to be.
Likewise, so far, with dark energy, which was discovered with telescopes by measuring the accelerated expansion of the universe, it too has been the province of cosmologists, who have written about it only in reference to extraterrestrial matters and the overall shape and destiny of the universe. This is a mistake. This dark stuff turns out to play a hidden role in the visible world, including in our understanding of life itself. Dark energy resides in all empty space, not just outer space, and permeates all existence. Its quantum effects are present even in the spaces between the very atoms in our bodies.
The time has come for a new Newton, to reunite the physics of the extraterrestrial with the physics of the terrestrial. Such an integration might facilitate our understanding of dark matter and dark energy, enabling a better understanding of who we are and of the cosmos in which we live.
Just as the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy shook the foundations of physics, our continued inability to unearth the identity and nature of most of the universe continues to shake them, and, consequently, it limits our understanding of our place in the universe. We still do not know much about the dark sector except that it exists; yet researchers often ascribe properties to dark matter based on presumptions that mimic known physics and are not intrepid enough. It seems to me that methodologies that might enable us to ask new questions, and find new properties or new roles for the dark in our universe, generate fear. Do we dread the dark so much that we project our fears onto the very phenomena about which we are scientifically ignorant?
Dark matter and dark energy are not the only anomalies our current physics doesn’t handle. A handful of other deviations from our accepted theories of physics generate speculations that likewise trouble physics. The resolution of these anomalies may shake the foundation of what we presume to be true.
Such anomalies raise a related set of questions, one more apropos for the social sciences than the natural sciences: How does science respond to ideas that might violate our scientific norms and expectations? Does the scientific community fear embracing “dark” ideas from outsiders, especially if the ideas may not be in a form that the community is comfortable with, if they do not fit seamlessly into our theories and expected practices?
At the turn of the last century, the discovery of black-body radiation found in most objects that appeared to not emit light was a theoretical “catastrophe” for classical physics, giving nonsensical predictions that are not seen in experiments. But when German physicist Max Planck embraced the reality of the black body, he turned electromagnetic theory on its head, and the quantum revolution was born. Is it possible that the theoretical anomalies we now confront will yield a comparable scientific revolution? If so, who is likely to motivate it?
Regardless of our ability to create the most abstract mathematics and come to know truths beyond our five senses, as humans we are limited by our social and psychological conditioning. In this book, we will go beyond the current conceptual and scientific-sociological paradigm into uncharted and sometimes risky conceptual territories. What lurks beyond the black hole singularity in our galaxy and before time existed at the big bang? How did cosmic structure emerge from a chaotic and featureless evolving early universe? What is the role of dark energy and dark matter in the universe? Is there a hidden link between the emergence of life and the laws of physics? These are questions on the boundary of what we know; answering them may call into question the theories that constitute our knowledge. If we are to answer them, we must ask whether the scientific community is able to incorporate into its activities nontraditional members, outsiders more likely to see beyond our current theoretical horizon; further, is the scientific community, as it is now structured, able to empower these outsiders to break new ground?
I want to bring you with me as I try to take on some of these questions. To do this effectively, I will provide both the necessary background and the conceptual tools needed to understand a bit of established physics. My discussion is based on three fundamental principles that underlie all known physics; a grasp of them will enable us to understand some of the problems at the borders of what physicists think they know and understand. I will be frank, sometimes controversial, and deliberately engage in some of my own wild speculations. This is not just a book about what we know in physics, but a book that explicates the frontiers of physics, a book about how physics is done.
Much that is taught and written about physics expresses what we know already. This book presumes that the process of doing physics is different than the process of learning the physics we know already. The first explores what we do not yet know, while the second transmits what others have learned previously. Here, while some of the latter is necessary—there are certain things that must be shared—our focus is on how we might think about what we do not yet know.
Crucial is a simple insight: a responsibility of physicists is to apply what we know already in new areas of inquiry, to transform and extend our knowledge. Great teaching in physics helps us to do physics, not simply learn the physics we know already. This means learning physics has to enable us to work at the boundary of what we know or, in rare cases, to go beyond those boundaries, or even reconstruct the very framework of our knowledge. If this book is successful, it will help you understand what it means to be creative in theoretical physics.
Often when I am stuck on a problem—of the physics variety or the personal one—I make a pilgrimage to the northern coast of my birthplace, Trinidad and Tobago. There is something that feels unspeakably out of body about trekking through the lush 60-mile stretch of the deep green mountain range overlooking Las Cuevas Bay. I hike up the winding paths to the top of a hill overlooking the ocean, the tropical jungle sounds looming behind me and the rhythmic crashing of the crystalline emerald crescent waves sounding below. Surrounded by nature, beautiful and primordial, I am often surprised to find new insights into my problems.
One day not so long ago, I found myself getting nowhere on a research problem. I headed back to the jungle to look at the sea. While I was there it dawned on me—not the solution to the research problem, but the realization that during two decades of scientific research, I had been unconsciously dodging my original reason for becoming a physicist: to make a meaningful scientific discovery. I realized I feared failure and the professional risk failure entailed. The ability to maintain a scientific career is driven by, among other factors, your reputation among your peers and familiarity with your work. Penalties await those who are perceived as a “crackpot” or who speculate too much. I knew that some of the ideas that interested me, such as the connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics, would make me vulnerable to stigma and potentially stump my career.
In theoretical physics research, there is a sense of dissatisfaction, a belief that we have not been able to break new ground in the same way that led to the quantum and relativity revolutions early last century. It’s not to say that people aren’t trying to address their dissatisfactions; a handful of papers are posted every day on an online global archive of physics research called the Archives, and oftentimes these papers offer new approaches to unsolved mysteries.
Despite this, there’s not much feeling of progress. Why is this? Is it because these problems are too hard for us? Or is it that in the search for the truth, some scientists are afraid to look at uncharted or forbidden territories, afraid because there may be penalties, reputational and professional, for stepping outside accepted paradigms? I think that it’s the latter. In this book, I will provide my thoughts and reflections; I will take some risks, hoping that we learn something significant along the way, whether I am right or wrong.
As a Black physicist, this potential strength—that I am brimming with ideas, my capacity to generate speculative thinking—can be an impediment. Black persons in scientific circles are often met with skepticism about their intellectual capabilities, their ability to “think like a physicist.” Consequently, my exploratory, personal style of theorizing, when coupled with my race, often creates situations where my white colleagues become suspicious and devalue my speculations. I have navigated a career in physics in spite of these racial and sociological prejudices, and, given both my personality and my predilections, I continue to march ahead, sharing my conjectures, which, at least sometimes, are theoretically fruitful. This book will be no exception.
During my time of self-reckoning in Trinidad, I decided to devote the majority of my research efforts to working on some of the big mysteries in physics. To do so effectively, I would have to bring my entire being to how I do physics, which meant engaging in improvisational and wild speculations. When you meet me in person, it is clear that I am volcanic with ideas, most of which turn out to be wrong, while some, even among those that are “wrong,” are fruitful and worth pursuing. Underlying these ideas is a latent foundation, the theoretical and technical tools of my trade.
Physics is a social activity, and like all social activities it is regulated by norms. Practitioners are expected to conform to these normative expectations, and they are sanctioned negatively when they violate them. Too often the expectations of what it means to do “good science” become confused with specific theoretical orientations, which means that practitioners in subdisciplines are expected to uphold specific theoretical arguments. This is desirable insofar as it rules out ideas like flat-earthism and others that make no sense scientifically. Sometimes, however, this expectation of conformity stifles innovation and progress. Some scientists are reluctant to explore ideas outside the expected paradigm because they will be punished if they do so, which means that paradigm-shattering theories can be inhibited from emerging.
We need to distinguish clearly between the values and norms that regulate scientific activity and those that demand conformity to a particular body of theory, a particular paradigm, within a scientific community. Both are constituted socially, but the latter obligations can restrict our creativity, our ability to constitute new theoretical orientations. It is crucial, however, to recognize that our theoretical arguments must be regulated within and evaluated through the application of scientific values, the values of cognitive rationality. Very simply, this means that our theoretical arguments must be logically coherent and empirically warrantable. Not every “creative idea” may be turned into viable physical theory. In fact, the likelihood that any one of us will create a new paradigm because we have violated the norms regulating activity within the standard paradigm is very slim. No one can do so, however, without violating these norms.
I want this book to serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement for individuals who feel disenfranchised and unwelcome in our scientific communities, people who are sometimes, or often, made to feel that they are not valued as contributors to the scientific endeavor. So as much as this is a book about my reflections on the state of physics, as theory, I also reflect on and analyze both the sociology of science and my own experiences to argue for the efficacy of outsiders’ presence and perspectives in scientific communities and inquiry. The path to becoming a scientist poses challenges for everyone. In shedding new light on the social dynamics of science, and simply sharing our stories, we can see how some of the challenges outsiders face can inspire them to make significant scientific contributions.
Excerpted from Fear of a Black Universe. Used with the permission of the publisher, Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of HBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Stephon Alexander.