Science Questions

Why are things fundamental to the universe so hard to detect?

Tue, 25th Oct 2011

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Question

Geoff Griffith asked:

Hi,

 

I enjoy listening to your podcasts very much and am always looking out for them. Alas, the astronomy and archeology do not seem to come any more. Will they resume or have they simply passed away?

 

On another issue, I would like to raise the matter of dark matter and dark energy. It has always seemed to me that theoretical scientists have tended to invent a 'reality' in order to ensure their their theoretical positions have a basis in reality. Yet there seems to be more reason than ever to question this position. For instance, the evidence from CERN, the faint galaxies and the failure of detectors to identify the missing matter raises the possibility that the theories will need to change. I for one cannot understand why the Higgs-Boson or dark matter are so difficult to find when they are supposed to be fundamental to the universe. Of course, you can tell I am not a scientist but I would like to have the issues explained so I think a discussion would make a very interesting podcast.

 

Thanks for your time.

 

Geoff Griffith

 

 

 

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Geoff Griffith asked the Naked Scientists: Hi, I enjoy listening to your podcasts very much and am always looking out for them. On another issue, I would like to raise the matter of dark matter and dark energy. It has always seemed to me that theoretical scientists have tended to invent a 'reality' in order to ensure their their theoretical positions have a basis in reality. Yet there seems to be more reason than ever to question this position. For instance, the evidence from CERN, the faint galaxies and the failure of detectors to identify the missing matter raises the possibility that the theories will need to change. I for one cannot understand why the Higgs-Boson or dark matter are so difficult to find when they are supposed to be fundamental to the universe. Of course, you can tell I am not a scientist but I would like to have the issues explained so I think a discussion would make a very interesting podcast. Thanks for your time. Geoff Griffith What do you think? Geoff Griffith , Sat, 1st Oct 2011

It's a very good question. To me it seem to have to do with the scale of measuring. Quantum mechanics versus our macroscopic reality.

So 'scales' is one thing that matters.
Then you have 'time'.
And 'distance'.
And 'energy'

In the beginning there was an awful lot of 'energy', no matter, no room, and possibly as a direct effect, no macroscopic 'arrow of time'. To mimic those conditions physicists have to invest an incredible amount of energy in their accelerators and not even then, using the LHC, coming anywhere near those first conditions.

And you have to deduct those original 'bosons' whatever, you can't see a gravity particle. You can only see the way the particles we already know exist behave and from there find that the way they behaved indicate a 'Higgs Boson' for example. And to do that you need to invest a lot of energy, over a extended period of time, repeating your experiments to build a statistically proven model.
yor_on, Sun, 2nd Oct 2011

Hi Geoff,

The goal of much of fundamental physics is to look at a phenomena in the universe that we don't fully understand and examine it until we do understand it.  The tools for this are theories and models, which explain the phenomena.  But these theories and models can't be accepted until they're tested against reality, which is why we do experiments or observe the universe through telescopes.

In the cases you mention, the Higgs particle is a very specific model for how fundamental particles get mass, so testing it involves just looking for the particle.  The problem is that the theory doesn't specify the exact energy at which to create the Higgs particle in an experiment, and we couldn't search exhaustively for it in the previous generation of particle accelerators, but the LHC should either confirm it or rule it out.  So the Higgs was just a problem of not having a good enough accelerator to check the theory fully.

Dark matter and dark energy are catch-all descriptions that describe that the universe isn't quite behaving the way our current models predict.  The explanations for this vary from simply adding as-of-yet undiscovered kinds of matter/energy into our current models to coming up with new models to describe gravity and the evolution of the universe.  The problem with the former is that we're not sure why we can't see this matter/energy with telescopes, and the problem with the latter is that it's hard to come up with a theory that's testable and that also matches what we observe throughout the universe.  And since these both involve things on large scales (galaxy-sized and larger), testing them is difficult. jpetruccelli, Sun, 2nd Oct 2011

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