Personally, I think that popular science books ought to devote more pages to the issue of how language is used in science. The words scientists choose are central to communication and miscommunication both among researchers and between scientists and non-scientists. The problem is that all language is full of misnomers and contradictory definitions, and scientific language is no exception.
One especially problematic scientific word is “matter.” It has multiple and partly contradictory meanings within particle physics, astronomy and cosmology. For instance,
(Quote) It’s not even clear that “dark matter,” a term used widely by astronomers and particle physicists alike, is actually matter.
(Endnote) Among possible dark matter particles are axions and dark photons, neither of which would obviously qualify as “matter.”*
Particle physics news today… I’ve been spending my mornings this week at the 11th Long-Lived Particle Workshop, a Zoom-based gathering of experts on the subject. A “long-lived particle” (LLP), in this context, is either a detectable particle that might exist forever, or a particle that, after traveling a macroscopic, measurable distance — something between 0.1 … Read more
In the long and careful process of restarting the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] after its two-year nap for upgrades and repairs, another milestone has been reached: protons have once again collided inside the LHC’s experimental detectors (named ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE). This is good news, but don’t get excited yet. It’s just one small step. … Read more
As promised in my last post, I’ve now written the answer to the second of the three questions I posed about how the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] can search for dark matter. You can read the answers to the first two questions here. The first question was about how scientists can possibly look for something … Read more
Dark Matter. Its existence is still not 100% certain, but if it exists, it is exceedingly dark, both in the usual sense — it doesn’t emit light or reflect light or scatter light — and in a more general sense — it doesn’t interact much, in any way, with ordinary stuff, like tables or floors … Read more
As many of you will have already read, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, has “restarted”. Well, a restart of such a machine, after two years of upgrades, is not a simple matter, and perhaps we should say that the LHC has “begun to restart”. The process of … Read more
Familiar throughout our international culture, the “Big Bang” is well-known as the theory that scientists use to describe and explain the history of the universe. But the theory is not a single conceptual unit, and there are parts that are more reliable than others.
It’s important to understand that the theory — a set of equations describing how the universe (more precisely, the observable patch of our universe, which may be a tiny fraction of the universe) changes over time, and leading to sometimes precise predictions for what should, if the theory is right, be observed by humans in the sky — actually consists of different periods, some of which are far more speculative than others. In the more speculative early periods, we must use equations in which we have limited confidence at best; moreover, data relevant to these periods, from observations of the cosmos and from particle physics experiments, is slim to none. In more recent periods, our confidence is very, very strong.
Notice that in the figure, I don’t measure time from the start of the universe. That’s because I don’t know how or when the universe started (and in particular, the notion that it started from a singularity, or worse, an exploding “cosmic egg”, is simply an over-extrapolation to the past and a misunderstanding of what the theory actually says.) Instead I measure time from the start of the Hot Big Bang in the observable patch of the universe. I also don’t even know precisely when the Hot Big Bang started, but the uncertainty on that initial time (relative to other events) is less than one second — so all the times I’ll mention, which are much longer than that, aren’t affected by this uncertainty.
I’ll now take you through the different confidence zones of the Big Bang, from the latest to the earliest, as indicated in the figure above.