[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 29 11:40:22 MST 2015


NY Times Sunday Book Review, Nov. 29 2015
‘Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,’ by Lisa Randall
By MARIA POPOVA

DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS
The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
By Lisa Randall
412 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.

A good theory is an act of the informed imagination — it reaches toward 
the unknown while grounded in the firmest foundations of the known. In 
“Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs,” the Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall 
proposes that a thin disk of dark matter in the plane of the Milky Way 
triggered a minor perturbation in deep space that caused the major 
earthly catastrophe that decimated the dinosaurs. It’s an original 
theory that builds on a century of groundbreaking discoveries to tell 
the story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, how dark 
matter illuminates its beguiling unknowns and how the physics of 
elementary particles, the physics of space, and the biology of life 
intertwine in ways both bewildering and profound.

If correct, Randall’s theory would require us to radically reappraise 
some of our most fundamental assumptions about the universe and our own 
existence. Sixty-­six million years ago, according to her dark-matter 
disk model, a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far 
reaches of the cosmos hurled a comet three times the width of Manhattan 
toward Earth at least 700 times the speed of a car on a freeway. The 
collision produced the most powerful earthquake of all time and released 
energy a billion times that of an atomic bomb, heating the atmosphere 
into an incandescent furnace that killed three-quarters of Earthlings. 
No creature heavier than 55 pounds, or about the size of a Dalmatian, 
survived. The death of the dinosaurs made possible the subsequent rise 
of mammalian dominance, without which you and I would not have evolved 
to ponder the perplexities of the cosmos.

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A necessary primer: Dark matter is the invisible cosmic stuff that, like 
ordinary matter — which makes up the stars and the stardust, you and me 
and everything we know — interacts with gravity but, unlike ordinary 
matter, doesn’t interact with light. Although scientists know that dark 
matter exists and accounts for a staggering 85 percent of the universe — 
billions of dark-­matter particles are passing through you this very 
second — they don’t yet know what it’s made of. For Randall the 
possibilities within that mystery are among the most thrilling frontiers 
of human ­knowledge.

Ordinary matter contains an entire ecosystem of particles — among them 
various quarks and neutrinos, the electron, and the newly discovered 
Higgs boson. So far, scientists have assumed that dark matter comprises 
only one type of particle. Randall, however, posits that dark matter 
might also comprise a variety of building blocks that interact through 
different forces. No prior theory has considered the simple yet profound 
possibility that while most dark matter doesn’t interact with ordinary 
matter, a portion of it might. Because dark matter carries five times 
the energy of ordinary matter, that tiny fraction could have enormous 
­consequences.

Randall calls the force driving that fraction “dark light” — an 
appropriately paradoxical term confuting the haughty human assumption 
that the world we see is all there is. Her hypothesis that dark matter 
might interact with itself through its own unique form of invisible 
light calls to mind the poetic title of a 2003 paper by the physicist 
Brian Josephson about Einstein’s famous conversation with the Indian 
philosopher Rabindranath Tagore: “We Think That We Think Clearly, but 
That’s Only Because We Don’t Think Clearly.”

As stimulating as the substance of the book is, however, Randall doesn’t 
quite join the ranks of such masterly science-­storytellers as Stephen 
Jay Gould, Diane Ackerman, Alan Lightman or James Gleick. Giants like 
the late Oliver Sacks — working scientists who are also enchanting 
writers — come about once or twice a century, if we’re lucky. Randall is 
first and foremost a working scientist — but while she isn’t a natural 
storyteller of Sacks’s caliber, she is an excellent explainer, and her 
affection for her subject matter is infectious.

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. 
White told The Paris Review in 1969. “You have to write up, not down.” 
What is true of children’s books turns out to be true of science books. 
While you need not be a physicist to metabolize the narrative, you are 
certainly called upon to do your own chewing — a rare opportunity in a 
culture where we are taken for so intellectually inept that our own 
conclusions are fed to us in listicles of bite-size buzz.

To be sure, Randall does have her lyrical moments — it’s hard to imagine 
that someone this genuinely enamored with the cosmos wouldn’t, much less 
a scientist who alludes to Blake in explaining cosmological inflation 
and weaves a description of a Renaissance fresco into the history of 
comets. Above all, she takes care to reveal the inherent poetry of 
science: The dinosaurs, who walked the earth for much longer than we 
have, perished, but from them evolved the birds that animate our skies; 
meteorites, for all their deadly capacity, once deposited the very amino 
acids that became the seeds of earthly life. “Extinctions,” Randall 
writes, “destroy life, but they also reset the conditions for life’s 
evolution.” The universe is strewn with dualities, which Randall 
insightfully exposes.

Therein lies the book’s greatest reward — the gift of perspective. The 
existence of parallel truths is what gives our world its tremendous 
richness, and the grand scheme of things is far grander than our minds 
habitually imagine. “The future enters into us in this way in order to 
transform itself in us long before it happens,” Rilke wrote. Although it 
took the deadly comet an immeasurably long time to reach its earthly 
victims, the dinosaurs’ destiny — and, in consequence, our own — was 
sealed in the cosmic blink when dark matter jolted that icy body out of 
orbit. It’s a sobering revelation of the gestational period of 
consequences. As Randall peers into the universe’s 13.8-­billion-year 
history, she notes that in her lifetime alone, human population has more 
than doubled, straining Earth’s resources and undermining cosmic work 
billions of years in the making. Although her periodicity model projects 
that a major meteoroid isn’t expected to hit us for another 32 million 
years or so, our civilization’s impact on the planet is like that of a 
slow-moving comet headed for doom — but unlike the one that killed the 
dinosaurs, Randall reminds us, we still have a chance to avert its course.

Almost more interesting than the theory itself is Randall’s tour of the 
process of scientific endeavor, in which scientists traverse the abyss 
between the known and the unknown, suspended by intuition, 
adventurousness, a large dose of stubbornness and a measure of luck. Her 
account of how scientists proved that a meteoroid killed the dinosaurs — 
a hypothesis that was first considered preposterous but that later 
precipitated a worldwide detective story 30 years in the making — is one 
of the most thrilling tales in the history of science. Only time will 
tell whether Randall’s own model ends up as the kind of work that merits 
a Nobel Prize or as one of those trailblazing wrongs that steer future 
scientists toward the truth.

Randall’s work, which she approaches with equal parts passion and 
precision, is perhaps best described as creative computational 
cosmology. Although she is one of the world’s most prominent working 
scientists, her theory is essentially a thought experiment in the 
tradition of philosophy, bridging metaphysics with the most strenuous 
experiment and observation of science. What emerges is an imaginative 
and ambitious model of how we ended up where we are now. Science, after 
all, isn’t merely about advancing information — it’s about advancing 
understanding. Its task is to disentangle the opinions and the claims 
from the facts in the service of truth. But beyond the “what” of truth, 
successful science writing tells a complete story of the “how” — the 
methodical marvel building up to the “why” — and Randall does just that.

Maria Popova is the founder of BrainPickings.org and an M.I.T. Futures 
of Entertainment fellow.




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