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A prize for what can’t be known

A prize for what can’t be known
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First Published: Thu, Oct 06 2011. 09 01 PM IST

Photo Courtesy: Palomar Observatory
Photo Courtesy: Palomar Observatory
Updated: Thu, Oct 06 2011. 09 01 PM IST
The Nobel Prize for physics has gone to three scientists for their discovery—one that they themselves were astonished by initially—that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace. No one has still figured out why, but they have given the reason a name: dark energy. And when everyone redid their math, they reached a truly amazing conclusion: that 70% (that’s right, 70) of the universe is dark energy. Now add to that what cosmologists call “dark matter” (stuff that is invisible to us because it neither emits nor scatters light or any other electromagnetic radiation), which constitutes another 25%. So all the normal matter—that is, what our instruments can detect—makes up about 5% of the universe. To quote the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) website: “Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called ‘normal’ matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe.”
Photo Courtesy: Palomar Observatory
Yes, we don’t have a clue about 95% of the universe.
That’s the really big stuff—for the guys with unruly beards and genius IQs to ponder over. But what about the smaller stuff, things that could mean the difference between life and death?
Last month, one of the strangest murder trials in history began in Italy. Over four months in 2008-09, the city of L’Aquila was rocked by a series of seismic tremors. The government set up a team of seven experts to assess the risk of a major earthquake. In March 2009, the team declared that there was no such danger, but six days later, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit, killing 308 people. The team has been indicted for manslaughter. The logic: if it had not assured the populace, many people would perhaps have left their homes and not been killed. The scientists say that L’Aquila is situated in a highly seismic zone, and they decided, after studying the data, that the possibility of a powerful earthquake striking the city remained essentially the same, with or without the series of small tremors. They saw no reason to take emergency action. The prosecution argues that all seismologists know that a series of small earthquakes increases the probability of a major one. True, say the accused, but the absolute probability still remains very low, in the range of 1 in 1,000. Is that enough to take an alarmist stance and evacuate thousands of people?
It’s staggering when we think of how ignorant we actually are about how the world works. Our textbooks teach us all sorts of theories, but we actually know almost next to nothing.
At the subatomic level, we are still confused as hell about what’s going on and how. What quantum physicists call the Standard Model—described elegantly by writer Bill Bryson as “essentially a sort of parts kit for the subatomic world”—is accepted very grudgingly: after all, it’s unwieldy, gives a sort of slapdash cellotaped feeling about the world’s fundamentals, and is quite obviously incomplete. So, some brainiacs came up with the superstring theory, which explains (mostly) everything, except for a small problem: the math work perfectly only in an 11-dimensional universe. So we don’t know what the action is at the cosmic level, and we don’t know what’s playing out in the building block league.
The truth is, our science textbooks lie. They give us a sense of false security. Ask a simple question: How old is the universe? The most popular estimate currently is from Nasa: 13.75 billion years, give or take 110 million years. But Nasa, in true scientific spirit, also warned that its conclusion was “based on the fact we have assumed the underlying model we used is correct”. Which, in layman terms, roughly means fitting observational data into already concluded results. So we are not really certain.
Ask another simple question: Will it rain tomorrow? Human beings have been trying to predict the weather for thousands of years, from studying animal behaviour to whether the sky remains red after sunset, to chaos theory. At the end of it all, we have a fairly good grip on whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Beyond one week, it is nearly impossible to predict anything with any certainty, because the impact of extremely small errors in the initial input doubles every five days. It’s good sense to keep an umbrella handy.
All of us have been on aeroplanes (for all I know, you’re reading this at 40,000 feet above sea level), and have experienced turbulence. The plane bumps around, the old lady next to you starts muttering prayers, you clutch your seat handles tightly. But no one has a clue why turbulence happens suddenly in a clear zone. Richard Feynman termed it “the most important unsolved problem of classical physics”.
And the story goes that Werner Heisenberg (whose “uncertainty principle”, one of the foundations of quantum physics, Einstein never believed), when asked what he would ask God, given the opportunity, replied: “Two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I believe he will have an answer for the first.”
Have a nice flight. And don’t trust scientists.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Oct 06 2011. 09 01 PM IST