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Jewish World Review June 18, 2003 / 18 Sivan 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Through a looking glass darkly | While you've been worrying about Iraq, Jayson (and Tony) Blair, Sammy Sosa, Martha Stewart and such, scientists - well, a few of them, anyway - have been studying "dark matter."

In my columnistic role as setter of the public agenda, I deem that it's way past time to turn our attention from the nincompooposities of the regular news so that we may feast our eyes on dark matter, which, uh, can't be seen.

Perhaps you wonder how our eyes might feast on invisible stuff. Why, the same way they feast on plotless sitcoms. The same way our minds feast on weightless political speeches. The same way our hearts feast on commitmentless relationships.

When astronomers gaze out into the cosmos, they don't see a lot of stuff they're sure is out there. (It's like looking at a Sammy Sosa bat and not being able to see cork.)

In fact, they have estimated that only about 3 percent of the universe can be seen with the naked (oh, dear) eye. Another 27 percent of the universe's total mass is made up of dark matter, which may or may not be sterile neutrinos. (See? You thought science was boring, but right here in one paragraph about science you've already encountered nudity and sterility. Hoo-wee.)

By my math, that leaves 70 percent of the universe unaccounted for, and scientists think that part is made up of dark energy and radiation. If dark matter is mass you can't see, I suppose dark energy is energy you can't see, either, except that I don't know exactly what it means to see regular energy - beyond light waves. Maybe if you turn on a dark-energy lamp in the middle of the day the room goes dark. But that's just a guess.

Anyway, scientists scattered around the globe have been pondering dark matter for years. Among them is Francisco Prada of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and some of his colleagues at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Not long ago, they reported on the results of their research at a meeting of other sky-watchers in the Canary Islands of Spain. You'd think the Canary Islands would be reserved for bird-watchers, not sky-watchers, but apparently the canaries there will let in almost any kind of watcher.

Prada and his friends used the Sloan Digital Sky Survey ( telescopes to observe 250,000 galaxies, they said. They were looking for the way dark matter produces a gravitational effect on about 3,000 satellites (natural, not man-made) that orbit these galaxies.

"Our results imply the presence of dark matter," Prada announced.

Notice, please, the tentativeness of the conclusion. The verb "imply" is soft, gentle, not assertive. It allows room for error, for reinterpretation. It doesn't smack folks upside the head. That's the way good science should proceed. It's also the way radio talk show hosts should proceed, though apparently no one has ever taught them that, so they barge right ahead with noisy declarative sentences that draw unwarranted conclusions the way picnics draw ants.

By the way, the Prada team's conclusions about dark matter support widely accepted theories about the stuff but seem to contradict an alternative theory known as MOND, which stands for Modified Newtonian Dynamics. The MOND theory, about which I understand nothing, apparently eliminates the need for dark matter to explain the unseeable mass in the universe.

I'm not sure why eliminating something you can't see anyway is any great shakes, but that's apparently what MOND does.

I will try to anticipate your other obvious question here by telling you that the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescopes are at the Apache Point Observatory and that the Apache Point Observatory is - where else? - in Sunspot, N.M., which eventually may have to be renamed Skin Cancer, N.M., but we can wait.

The Sloan telescopes there are busy mapping one-fourth of the whole sky, figuring out the positions and brightness of about 100 million objects in space. Hey, speaking of Iraq, maybe those telescopes will find that space is where Saddam Hussein hid his weapons of mass destruction. Do you think?

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved