I recall sitting in a meeting years ago, where a group of about 15 people had to view some business artwork presented by an artist.
People said that the basic colour was ‘black on white’. The artist replied: “No, it is not black – it is midnight blue.” The group said it was black and the artist insisted it was midnight blue, and an argument ensued. I sat still and listened as it became more heated.
I decided that the artist was right. I had two reasons – the first was that he had studied the subject and so knew more about it than the rest of us, so we should respect his professionalism. Secondly, from a physics point of view, the midnight sky is dark but not black – it is suffused with a scatter of starlight from billions of stars.
So I put up my hand, entered the discussion and announced that the artist was right. That stopped the argument and the artist was really relieved. He later thanked me for saving his pride. That was an interesting learning experience for me too – to remember to respect the professionalism of others, even when an answer seems obvious to those not trained in the subject.
Before Christmas, I looked up into the night to watch the International Space Station (ISS) race across the sky. In fact, it seems to lazily drift across the star-studded background but, in reality, it is travelling at a tremendous speed, a speed that makes international jet travel appear to be a snail’s pace.
I knew exactly where to look and at what time and, exactly on time, the ISS appeared. It is emotional, because one knows that there are people up there looking down. I mentally waved and thought: “Hi guys, I wish I were up there with you.”
When Bill Clinton was President of the US,
I personally asked him to arrange a flight in the space shuttle for me, and he said he would tell the people concerned, which he then did as I stood there. Well, heck, I can hope, can’t I? I hoped that one of those aides would somehow filter my name back to the people who take such decisions.
It now appears that the vastness of space is not actually empty. For years, astronomers had found that gravity calculations were just not working out. There was not enough visible matter to account for the forces that were evident. They concluded that there must be something else hiding up there.
During the early 1930s, Fritz Zwicky, a professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, realised that faraway galaxies were moving “too fast” for the maths.
Zwicky was very hung up on symmetry, and he referred to people he did not like as ‘spherical’ bastards – ‘spherical’ because they were bastards, “whichever way you looked at them”.
By 1936, corroborating evidence had been found by Sinclair Smith, of the Mount Wilson Observatory. Over the next 30 years, the evidence mounted, but it was astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford who clinched the case. The conclusion was reached that the universe is full of ‘dark matter’.
Famously, one cannot see a black cat in the dark, but this is not the case with dark matter. We cannot see it because we cannot see it – we don’t know why. It is not a case of it being invisible because no light is shining on it. So we still have to find out what it actually is. But it is there.
Now, to make matters even more complicated, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that force fields cannot be stable – they are always ‘jittering’ a little bit. So gravity is jittering.
When the universe was first formed in a big bang, one would expect it to have been very uniform. Imagine an explosive going off in a bag of flour; why should any particles of flour join up? Well, the ‘jittering’ required by Heisenberg caused a couple of particles here, there, and there, and there . . . to join up, as the big bang unfolded.
These particles grew to become galaxies as eons of time passed. So all the galaxies, stars, planets and our bodies came from nothing less than a quantum jitter.
The maths now says that the jittering is still going on . . . required by law – the Heisenberg Principle! So the vacuum of space is not empty. In technical language, the fields undergo ‘vacuum fluctuations’.
This means that photons of energy suddenly appear out of nowhere, for a moment, and then disappear back into nowhere. This is happening all the time. Wow!
Dutch physicist Hendrik Casmir figured out how vacuum fluctuations of the electromagnetic field could actually be detected. In 1977, Steven Lamoreaux, of the University of Washington, experimentally confirmed Casmir’s predictions. So empty space is teeming with quantum activity.
Nobody currently understands what is going on, but it seems the thing that we know as empty space is actually made of something. So the ‘nothing’ between the earth and the moon is made of ‘something’ and I don’t mean the drifting dust and rocks, and probably not even the dark matter.
As a new year unfolds, there are great volumes of wonderful stuff to explore and discover. Many great, wondrous revelations are still waiting in the wings to spring onto the stage of understanding.
Over 300 years ago, Isaac Newton said: “The whole ocean of truth is still out there.” It is still the case.