The Standard Model has been a mainstay of physics for over one hundred years. A lot of it has been empirically demonstrated through a variety of experiments, and never shown to be false. For ANY theory to last that long without serious challenge is amazing, especially given how much our knowledge of the universe has expanded in just the past twenty years.
As a result, the Standard Model has gotten a little frayed around the edges. In fact, recent events pose the possibility that after all this time, physicists may have to discard Einstein and start from scratch, a truly shocking possibility.
A little over ten years ago, I discussed some of the problems I was having in coming to grips with modern physics in an essay entitled “...Well, if you say so” I acknowledged then, as now, that I do not possess the math skills needed to really understand the equations that underlie the Standard Model, although I'm in better shape then most people in that I know the three laws of Kepler and Newton, can work out the Lorentz Contractions, and possess a basic working understanding of Special Relativity.
In short, I have just enough knowledge to be a danger to myself.
Don't mistake me for an expert. On the other hand, you'll be happy to know that I don't reject science because of Revealed Truths from God, Allah, St. Germain, the Lemurians or the Loch Ness monster. If I have a dog in this fight, it's nothing more than my own sense of curiosity.
Since I wrote that piece a decade ago, a lot of new discoveries have come along that have a jarring impact on what we think we know.
There was a fairly recent BBC documentary “Horizon: Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?” and this piece leans on it heavily for the following. If you know someone who can send you a copy, I strongly recommend it. BBC still makes the best documentaries in the world.
The Big Bang, which the Cosmologists insist should be taken literally, says that the Big Bang created everything in less than a quadrillionth of a second, and created the entire universe, some 14 billion light years in diameter. They dodge around the blatant violation of the speed of light by explaining that time and space were created at the same instant, and all force and matter was embedded in it. People think of it as an explosion, but that's not quite right. It's a bit more like a room brightening when a light is switched on, only far faster than light from that bulb could travel to the furthest corner of the room. It helps if you stipulate that the room didn't even exist until the light came on. Or, for that matter, the light.
Sounds suspiciously biblical, doesn't it? I understand the theory, and the evidence that supports the theory. But there are problems.
One such problem is that of the universe expanding. It isn't doing it right. The theory is that the universe has to have some sort of gravitational locus, a center, presumably but not necessarily where the Big Bang occurred. Therefore the rate of expansion should be slowing, much the way that a rock tossed into the air will slow as it rises and eventually begin falling back. Throw the rock hard enough and it doesn't come back, although its rate of travel decreases as long as the earth's gravity acts on it.
The rate of expansion in the universe is increasing instead. Physicists, groping for an answer, have come up with a suggestion: “dark energy.” Something is working against gravity to force the universe to expand faster. Since they know nothing of such a thing, they hung the label on it and went about trying to discover it.
Gravity is a very weak, albeit persistent force, and so if there is a force that can overcome it like that, it raises the question why any mass would remain coalesced in the first place. If it acts on the entire universe, why can't we measure its effects on earth, and if it treats earth the same as the universe, why isn't the earth a growing cloud of thin atomic dust?
It gets worse.
Gravity is seen as a constant throughout the universe, but that is now under grave doubt.
Galaxies rotate much faster than they should. In fact, the entire universe behaves like it has far more mass than we can see, and scientists have labeled that “dark matter.” It is what has led scientists to conclude that black holes – objects with gravitational fields so intense not even light can escape – lie at the middle of all galaxies.
We know that the universe is a lot more crowded than we thought 50 years ago. Vast clouds of hydrogen lie throughout the Milky Way, hiding 90% of it from visual view, clouds so huge that they are opaque, even though you could fly through one at nearly the speed of light and never know it was there. We now know that there's a lot of free-floating matter between galaxies, too. Which means we've accounted for about 10% of the matter that theory says ought to be there.
Present theory claims that there are twenty-four particles that are needed to make the supersymmetry string theory model work, one of which might be the “dark matter” particle. But we can't see them or measure them. They pass right through everything. Well, maybe Jesus magicked them or something.
It gets worse.
There are well-known laws regarding orbits. The rate of an orbit is the relationship between the mass of two or more objects, and their proximity to one another. Closer objects rotate faster than further objects. It isn't just that it follows a smaller circle: inner objects move faster, too. In our own solar system, Mercury zips along at nearly 108,000 miles an hour. Earth moves at a more sedate 68,000 miles an hour, and former planet Pluto crawls at 10,000 miles an hour.
But scientists studying nearby galaxies discovered that not only are the inner stars orbiting much faster than expected, but about a third the way out in some galaxies, all the stars do something very peculiar. They all orbit at the same velocity, regardless of distance. The inner stars still orbit faster since they have the inside track, but that shouldn't be happening at all, and nobody has come up with an explanation for this, other than to suggest “dark gravity.” Something is making gravity behave differently in those galaxies.
This is beginning to remind me of the old Superman comics. Superman is exposed to red kryptonite, which creates an evil doppelgänger of him for 24 hours. Scientists wonder what to call this monster so people will know which is the good Superman and which is the evil Superman, as if the inverted colors on the union suit wasn't enough of a clue. One arises, pointing a finger in the air to signify excitement and elevated self esteem: “I know! We'll call him Dark Superman!” Well, they had an audience willing to believe that being under a brighter sun could make you immune to bullets. Physicists have a tougher audience.
It gets worse.
There's an area of the universe where a lot of galaxies – millions of them – are converging while the rest of the universe is expanding. What's more, they are converging at an incredible rate of speed, sometimes approaching the speed of light. The variation doesn't seem to be linked to any proximity between said galaxy and wherever it is going, and even more perplexing, the galaxies aren't appearing to be pulled apart by their own tidal forces as they speed toward the mystery rendezvous. In other words, this mystery force is acting on all stars in a galaxy, regardless of where they are in that orbit around that galaxy. Nor is there any sign of tidal locking, as has happened to our Moon with us.
They've come up with a name for this, and it won't be a big surprise: Dark Flow.
This is all quite unexplainable by the Standard Model, and in the physics realm many are beginning to wonder if the model needs a major overhaul. It's done a magnificent job of explaining what we see for one hundred years, but we keep seeing new stuff that it doesn't quite cover. Either there is a lot of dark matter, dark energy, dark gravity, dark flow, and red kryptonite, or the standard model is wrong in some elemental way.
I'm not in a position to judge that. I don't know enough to even have a strong opinion. But obviously our knowledge is far from complete on the issue.
It gets worse.
Nothing is faster than light. Light moves in a vacuum at 299,792,458 meters per second. That it is the ultimate speed limit was the central premise of the standard model.
Until last month. Then Italian physicists announced that they have measured neutrinos moving at a clip of slightly over 300 million meters per second. That's not a big enough violation to make the read out flash red on a cop's radar gun, but it's a profound contradiction to physics.
Geoff Brumfiel, writing for Nature.com, put it this way: “The experiment is called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), and lies 1,400 metres underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. It is designed to study a beam of neutrinos coming from CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics laboratory located 730 kilometres away near Geneva, Switzerland. Neutrinos are fundamental particles that are electrically neutral, rarely interact with other matter, and have a vanishingly small mass. But they are all around us — the Sun produces so many neutrinos as a by-product of nuclear reactions that many billions pass through your eye every second.
The 1,800-tonne OPERA detector is a complex array of electronics and photographic emulsion plates, but the new result is simple — the neutrinos are arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows. 'We are shocked,' says Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and OPERA's spokesman.”
The Gran Sasso people had a pretty good idea what the ramifications of such an announcement would be, and didn't want to end up like those cold fusion guys. So they ran the tests sixteen thousand times over a two year period. Brumfiel writes, “Given all this, they believe the result has a significance of six-sigma — the physicists' way of saying it is certainly correct.”
Er, fellows? You know that thing about c being a universal constant? Well, funny thing...
There is one thing that saves the Standard Model, though. At the quantum level, not only can anything happen, but anything must happen. Cats really can be or not be simultaneously, the negative value of a factored equation “exists” just as much as the positive value, and everything is constant except our ability to ascertain that it is constant.
So it's not time to toss the model out just yet. But it tells us a lot more about what we don't know as opposed to what we think we know.
Posted: October 31, 2011