Scientific Hubris

I’m not here to claim that science is bogus or vain; or that it should somehow not be conducted. I believe science has given us many good things, and will likely continue to do so, assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime. However, some people have let themselves become arrogant because of all the progress science has made throughout history. I want to take it down a notch or two.

One very common claim I see is that we’ve learned so much about physics and the Universe. Our Standard Model is almost complete; it is the most highly consistent theory we have, so they say. I assume they’re right. There are a few gaps, and we’ve somehow got to fit gravity in there, but overall it’s consistent and broad. It is one of our best efforts.

And yet… in recent decades, there have been observations that the Universe isn’t quite behaving as it ought to. Galaxies are spinning too fast for them to hold together. The expansion of the Universe, despite the effects of mutual gravity between galaxies, is not slowing down as expected. In fact, the rate of expansion is increasing.

Scientists have therefore sought to explain these anomalies by suggesting that there is some sort of matter that affects regular matter with gravity, but that has no other effect. This hypothetical substance is called Dark Matter. The “Dark” here refers to the fact that we don’t understand it yet.

As for the accelerating expansion of the Universe, a Dark Energy is suggested. This energy pushes galaxies apart. Actually I think the official claim is that space between the galaxies increases, which is what carries them away from each other.

According to scientific estimates, Dark Matter accounts for about 27% of the Universe, while Dark Energy accounts for 68%. The remainder – ordinary matter and energy – account for only about 5% of the whole Universe.

This is where we seem to get into trouble. The Standard Model only applies to ordinary matter and energy, so it covers that 5%. It says nothing about the remaining 95% of the Universe.

So for all of our boasting, we only have some idea of how a mere 5% of the Universe may work. We can’t even show that Dark Energy or Dark Matter even exist.

There are alternatives to Dark Matter and Dark Energy. There is a hypothesis called Modified Newtonian Dynamics. This idea suggests that gravity works differently at different scales of distance. At distances about the size of a solar system, it operates as Newton described it. At distances about the size of galaxies, it may have stronger attraction. And at distances larger than galaxies, it may become repulsive.

A more recent idea is that gravity isn’t constant over time – its strength might change. I haven’t fully grasped this idea. One consequence, according to the authors, is that the Universe would be about 26.7 billion years old – just about twice the current estimate.

Obviously I have no clue whether any of these ideas have any merit. Chances are they’ll have to come up with something really clever, if they want to get out of this box.

There are experiments being conducted trying to discover Dark Matter. So far, none of them have offered even the slightest hint of the stuff. It could always be said that the experiment just wasn’t sensitive enough; with better equipment, we might yet find it.

The point of all this isn’t to claim that I know the right answer. I don’t. I’m not sure I clearly understand the question.

The point is, if we can only see 5% of the entire Universe, it’s difficult to support the notion that we really understand how things work.

JBS Haldane

The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

JBS Haldane.
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