Does dark matter exist?
Is the universe simply a hologram? A projection up of quantum bits of information?
Is the universe we experience as reality simply a computer simulation on a quantum computer in a future nerd’s basement?
These questions and others were recently brought up to me in an article published a few days ago in The Atlantic. In the article, titled “Is the Search for Dark Matter a Wild Goose Chase” the author discusses a new theory presented by theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde. In his new theory Verlinde attempts to do away with our common understanding of dark matter and instead replace it with the idea that, “dark matter is an interplay between ordinary matter and dark energy.” In order for his theory to work, he also had to modify the accepted view of gravity brought forth by Einstein, that it is the warping of the fabric of space-time.
The article is fascinating and I would encourage anyone to read it. But before I get into a few things I want to talk about, I think it is important to give a little background.
First of all, one needs to understand the difference between dark matter and dark energy since in his theory Verlinde questions the existence of dark matter but uses dark energy as a fundamental part of the theory.
Dark matter is assumed to exist due to the fact that we do not see galaxies flying apart. The visible matter of galaxies we can observe is not quantitatively large enough, according to our current theory of gravity, to account for the gravity needed to hold a galaxy together. They should all be flying apart. But they aren’t. So we have hypothesized the existence of a “dark” matter halo enveloping galaxies to account for the gravitational forces needed to keep them together.
Dark energy, on the other hand, stems from something different. It is assumed to exist to account for the accelerating expansion of the universe that we have observed via the red-shifting of light coming at us from distant stars and galaxies. Since anything with mass exerts a force on any other thing with mass (gravity), one may presume that the universe must be shrinking as all matter is attracted towards each other. But this is not what we observe and so we use dark energy as a way to account for the energy needed to expand the universe at an accelerating rate.
Another common misconception is to assume that dark energy and dark matter are related to each other by the same famous Einstein equation that we all learned in high school physics: E=mc2. But this isn’t necessarily true. We actually do not know enough yet about either of these to say with certainty that they are related in the same way as the conventional matter we interact with.
With that cleared up, I now want to move into a few things this article brought up. First a quote from the article:
Space-time and the matter within it are treated as a hologram that arises from an underlying network of quantum bits (called “qubits”), much as the three-dimensional environment of a computer game is encoded in classical bits on a silicon chip.
How’s that for a theory? Essentially, according to this theory the world we experience as reality could simply be a hologram, a three dimensional space made up of interfering light beams, encoded by the fluctuating states of a quantum bit.
Could it be that the god many people worship is simply a compute scientist who figured out quantum computing? Perhaps, this being has affirmation issues and likes to have his simulation worship him?
Now obviously I am being facetious, but there are people out there who believe that if it is possible to simulate a world like the one we live in, then chances are it has already been done and we are living in it. This brings up so many theological implications and is a whole book or more by itself.
But I want to keep moving.
This article got me thinking about the ways in which we perceive reality in general, how we observe it.
Now, in polymer science there is a principle called Time-Temperature Superposition. Basically, this principle says there exists an equivalence between time and temperature when it comes to properties of polymers; high temperatures are equivalent to long time scales and low temperatures are equivalent to short time scales. For example, grab something that you would consider a hard plastic. Now pull on both ends of it and push together on both ends of it. Most likely, nothing happened. However, that is due to the ambient temperature of the room you are in and the time scale at which we experience and interact with the world around us. If the time scale we existed in was much longer, if each movement we made took thousands of years instead of fractions of a second; then this plastic would seem to “flow” in our hands as we applied forces to it. We would observe it as a viscous liquid rather than a hard plastic.
One more example. Have you ever done a belly flop from the high dive? It feels much less like jumping into water and a lot more like landing on ice. Why? Well, water also exhibits characteristics of Time-Temperature Superposition. Suppose you were to punch water but do it in, let’s say, one billionth of a second. The rate at which you would deform the water molecules would be faster than the relaxation rate of those molecules, which means that the energy could not be dissipated within that time frame and it would be equivalent to punching glass. So once again, if we existed at a time scale that was much smaller, and all of our movements were much quicker, even something like water would not be a liquid but rather a hard glassy structure.
Okay, so where am I going with this?
I want to address the issue of certainty.
It should be both humbling and fascinating that we are able to perceive and understand so much of the world around us but at the same time that understanding is all based on the manner in which we interact with the world. This is not to say that our observations are wrong but rather that we are only observing the universe in a specific way.
As humans we have an obsession with certainty. I’m not saying we are wrong to pursue it but I applaud people like Erik Verlinde for being bold enough to challenge accepted theories and to not simply take what has been handed down as absolute certain truth.
The problem with certainty is that it is static and quite often oppressive.
I may come off a bit hypocritical because I also would argue we can be certain of things such as torturing a child is wrong, murder is wrong, and if you jump off a thousand foot cliff with no parachute you will die.
What I am referring to is a bit more abstract. When one becomes certain of their political views they often lose their ability to compromise. When one becomes certain of their religious beliefs they often persecute others who do not hold those beliefs or, even worse, commit acts of terrorism against those who disagree. When we become certain of a scientific theory, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity for example, we lose the ability to see the world in other ways, to be able to look past conventional wisdom and find new theories, make unique observations.
This ability to see past traditionally accepted theories is exactly what led Einstein to imagine a world where Newtonian physics didn’t apply. What came out of that is pretty obvious.
The universe is beautiful in its complexities, dumbfounding in its beauty, and much more gray than black and white.
So whether it is in science, religion, philosophy, design, or politics keep asking questions.
Keep pushing the envelope.
Keep making discoveries.
Keep a side of uncertainty on your plate.
Don’t be afraid to question the existence certainty, of God, or of dark matter.
Seek and you will find.