Posted by: Toadsly on Oct 09, 2011
Back in the day, when my sister, Aimee, was a Harvard undergraduate student, I’d travel to Cambridge at least once each semester, usually accompanied by my wife and parents. I’d, whenever possible, sign up for a continuing education course at the “New College” along the Charles River to help defray some of the trip’s expenditures, since various costs associated with continuing education were tax deductible. (Also, it was quite cool to inform my colleagues at professional meetings that I’d recently learned this or that at Harvard. I was so full of shit in those days I still stink a little, as evidenced by this post!) Over the four years, I got to meet Aimee’s college buddies, and one of them was an interesting character named Saul. I don’t think I ever knew his last name. Saul majored in physics; my sister in biology. After they graduated, Saul matriculated to UC Berkeley where he earned his PhD. Aimee and Saul kept in touch.
Occasionally, over the past 30 years, Aimee would tell me Saul received this award or was given that honor. Saul was a preeminent astrophysicist, and even appeared on a PBS Scientific American Frontiers program hosted by Alan Alda. I never saw it. I suppose my sister kept me informed about Saul because I’m an amateur astronomer, and she assumed I’d be interested.
A few days ago, I got an unexpected call from Sis. She said, “Isn’t wonderful about Saul?” “Saul?” said I. “Saul Perlmutter! He just won the Nobel Prize in physics!”
Perlmutter, who heads a group of physicists and astronomers called the Supernova Cosmology Project, along with Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt (two members of the competing High-Z Supernova Search team) will split the $1.5 million Swedish reward – Perlmutter 50%; Reiss & Schmidt, 25% each.
These three Nobel Laureates discovered in 1998 that a mysterious force now called “dark energy” has been pushing the universe apart for billions of years at an ever-increasing speed. By studying distant exploding stars called Type1a supernovae, which give off a constant amount of brilliant light when they destruct, for six years and interpreting the data amassed, it was apparent an unknown antigravity force was responsible for the unexpectedly fast expansion of the universe. Calculations suggest “dark energy” makes up 73% the universe. Another unknown entity, “dark matter,” comprises 23% of the universe. Only 4% is occupied by the objects we think of as tangible – namely, galaxies and stars and planets.
Some experts call “dark energy” the most profound problem in modern physics. Many explanations have been concocted to solve this riddle. Some physicists believe there is no “dark energy” and it’s just gravity acting in a way it’s not expected to act. Others suggest it might be quantum vacuum energy. (Quantum physics predicts, even in a vacuum, particles are constantly being created and destroyed, thereby producing energy.) Some even postulate there is a fourth dimension and gravity is siphoned off into it.
My favorite theory says our “infinite” universe is but one of many universes. Why is this my favorite? Because it allows me to conclude this post with a catchy, incomprehensible zinger: “We may exist in one infinity in a sea of infinities!"...I warned you that I'm full of shit!