What Lies Beneath?

New scientific discoveries in astrophysics and archeology make the notion of “settled science” risible. They also bring to mind the wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld in stressing the vital importance of “unknown unknowns.”  

Of course, it has always been thus.

Once, an Indian mystic was explaining to an Englishman the structure of the universe. The world sits atop a giant elephant, said the holy man.

That’s all well and good, responded the Englishman with classic Anglican sense, but what does the elephant stand on? The wise-man’s eyes widened and he exclaimed, Why, it stands upon the shell of a grand and cosmic tortoise, of course!

That’s all well and good, again responded the Englishman, but what does the tortoise stand on?

Surprisingly, this second question startled the fakir. Scratching his head, he thought for a minute, then replied with a single Hindi word that may roughly be translated as:

“Something I know not what.”

One can imagine the snide smirk upon our Englishman’s face, having cornered his interlocutor into admitting so much ignorance. After all, the English are heirs to a vast Western tradition, the sole ambition of which is to carefully categorize and explain the whole of nature.

And this enterprise has been remarkably successful; certainly Westerners can claim to have prodded and exposed a great many of nature’s workings.  In fact, we judge other cultures as “modern” to the extent, and only to the extent, that they adopt and appropriate Western scientific mores.

And yet…

Perhaps the Western penetration of nature has been superficial at best. In fact, the foremost thinkers on the very edges of science are staring into an abyss of knowledge -- literally.

Dark matter and dark energy combined make up 95 percent of everything. And yet we have no idea what these things are, how they work, or what they mean for the fate of the universe.

Put it this way: all of the stars and star-spawned material that is visible in the universe -- including every planet, person or proton -- accounts for a mere 5 percent of existence. It reflects radiation or emits it. It shines gloriously in the night sky, begging for our gaze and our awe. The rest? We know it’s there, but we cannot see it.

It is literally dark.

Dark matter is composed of some thing other than the electrons and protons that make up our 5 percent world. Whatever it is, we can be thankful for it -- it seems to be the only thing holding galaxies together (there is not enough ordinary matter present in observable galaxies to prevent them from disintegrating).

Dark energy is a mysterious force borne by some thing other than the photons that carry energy in our 5 percent world.  We know it exists because we observe its effect on our luminous matter -- the universe is flying apart.  Gravity should be slowing the universe down and contracting its constituent parts; instead, things are flying apart at an increasing rate.

Scientists are hard at work of course, trying to detect and understand these phenomena. And they may one day succeed. But their failure to understand the depth of their ignorance until very recently speaks to a problem with the scientific method itself.

The long climb to scientific supremacy begun by Aristotle in his invention of symbolic logic has in the end taken us to the summit of what turns out to be a very small hill, as we crane our necks upward at a looming, unseeable, unending mountain range.

Worse, the mountains we cannot see or understand will nevertheless affect us in ways we can’t imagine. It is positively Lovecraftian.

If the dark nature of our universe is only now being acknowledged and probed by the scientific community, it will be many years yet before the realization seeps into the worlds of art and philosophy. But when it does, the minds and creations of our dreamers and thinkers will reverberate with a profound sense of insecurity that may shake the very foundations of modern existence.

How is it possible, they will ask, that so much of reality remains closed to us even after two thousand years of following the Theseus-like string left by our great scientists? It’s as if we emerge from the labyrinth, having followed the string -- not into the bright light of day -- but into a deeper and blacker chamber.

It is, ironically, parallel to what is happening in the realm of archaeology. The textbooks of our high schools and universities lay out facts about our past as if they are clean and neat ornaments to be passed around and cooed over. The reality is that the more we dig, the more it becomes obvious that what we thought we knew about our ancestors is at best incomplete, and at worst dangerously wrong.

For example: the standard model of the rise of civilization draws a very straight and neat line from the Neolithic revolution, which led to the invention of cities, the written word, etc., right up to the iPhone that’s burning a hole in your pocket.

Unfortunately, it isn't so simple.

Recent excavations at a site in southeast Turkey show an astonishing megalithic monument, covered with complex and beautiful symbols. It is called Göbekli Tepe.

Photo by Rolfcosar  

The problem is that it seems to date in its earliest incarnations as far back as 10,000 B.C., many thousands of years older than the earliest known megalithic monuments in Mesopotamia and Egypt. So old, in fact, that its builders, whoever they were, started their project as the last Ice Age was coming to a close, a remote epoch during which our ancestors were supposedly still sub-literate cave dwellers.

It is not only the extreme antiquity of the site that is unnerving to the scientific establishment. It exudes a complexity that spans time and space. Giant stone, multi-ton blocks were somehow carved, moved, and erected in bizarre circular patterns and covered with representations of animals living and extinct, both native to the area and alien. The circles span many miles, and there are sections of which are still being found and excavated. 

We have no idea how large it really is, who built it, what they used it for, or why. We know it was in use for thousands of years. And it was apparently, intentionally buried around 8,000 B.C.  The deliberate burial of such a complex, requiring the movement of hundreds of tons of earth is in itself as stunning an engineering achievement as the construction of the monument itself.

Keep in mind this site is not some fevered imagining of some History Channel fake expert or alien conspiracy theorist. This is an actual archaeological site being excavated and puzzled over by credentialed and thoroughly disturbed scientists. 

And in fact, excavators estimate that what they have found constitutes a mere 5 percent of the complex, and that digging for another century will still not reveal the whole of the structure.

It’s all so disturbing to scientists because they thought they knew the human story already. And they make their living telling that story, their entire lives are based upon the fact that they are experts in that story. How profoundly unsettling it must be to realize perhaps you understand the smallest sliver of a story that was more vast and complicated than you could have ever imagined.

And so it is with physicists confronting dark matter and energy. 

In the end, Western scientists may be forced, when asked to explain what the vast majority of existence rests upon, to answer:

 “Something, we know not what.”

New scientific discoveries in astrophysics and archeology make the notion of “settled science” risible. They also bring to mind the wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld in stressing the vital importance of “unknown unknowns.”  

Of course, it has always been thus.

Once, an Indian mystic was explaining to an Englishman the structure of the universe. The world sits atop a giant elephant, said the holy man.

That’s all well and good, responded the Englishman with classic Anglican sense, but what does the elephant stand on? The wise-man’s eyes widened and he exclaimed, Why, it stands upon the shell of a grand and cosmic tortoise, of course!

That’s all well and good, again responded the Englishman, but what does the tortoise stand on?

Surprisingly, this second question startled the fakir. Scratching his head, he thought for a minute, then replied with a single Hindi word that may roughly be translated as:

“Something I know not what.”

One can imagine the snide smirk upon our Englishman’s face, having cornered his interlocutor into admitting so much ignorance. After all, the English are heirs to a vast Western tradition, the sole ambition of which is to carefully categorize and explain the whole of nature.

And this enterprise has been remarkably successful; certainly Westerners can claim to have prodded and exposed a great many of nature’s workings.  In fact, we judge other cultures as “modern” to the extent, and only to the extent, that they adopt and appropriate Western scientific mores.

And yet…

Perhaps the Western penetration of nature has been superficial at best. In fact, the foremost thinkers on the very edges of science are staring into an abyss of knowledge -- literally.

Dark matter and dark energy combined make up 95 percent of everything. And yet we have no idea what these things are, how they work, or what they mean for the fate of the universe.

Put it this way: all of the stars and star-spawned material that is visible in the universe -- including every planet, person or proton -- accounts for a mere 5 percent of existence. It reflects radiation or emits it. It shines gloriously in the night sky, begging for our gaze and our awe. The rest? We know it’s there, but we cannot see it.

It is literally dark.

Dark matter is composed of some thing other than the electrons and protons that make up our 5 percent world. Whatever it is, we can be thankful for it -- it seems to be the only thing holding galaxies together (there is not enough ordinary matter present in observable galaxies to prevent them from disintegrating).

Dark energy is a mysterious force borne by some thing other than the photons that carry energy in our 5 percent world.  We know it exists because we observe its effect on our luminous matter -- the universe is flying apart.  Gravity should be slowing the universe down and contracting its constituent parts; instead, things are flying apart at an increasing rate.

Scientists are hard at work of course, trying to detect and understand these phenomena. And they may one day succeed. But their failure to understand the depth of their ignorance until very recently speaks to a problem with the scientific method itself.

The long climb to scientific supremacy begun by Aristotle in his invention of symbolic logic has in the end taken us to the summit of what turns out to be a very small hill, as we crane our necks upward at a looming, unseeable, unending mountain range.

Worse, the mountains we cannot see or understand will nevertheless affect us in ways we can’t imagine. It is positively Lovecraftian.

If the dark nature of our universe is only now being acknowledged and probed by the scientific community, it will be many years yet before the realization seeps into the worlds of art and philosophy. But when it does, the minds and creations of our dreamers and thinkers will reverberate with a profound sense of insecurity that may shake the very foundations of modern existence.

How is it possible, they will ask, that so much of reality remains closed to us even after two thousand years of following the Theseus-like string left by our great scientists? It’s as if we emerge from the labyrinth, having followed the string -- not into the bright light of day -- but into a deeper and blacker chamber.

It is, ironically, parallel to what is happening in the realm of archaeology. The textbooks of our high schools and universities lay out facts about our past as if they are clean and neat ornaments to be passed around and cooed over. The reality is that the more we dig, the more it becomes obvious that what we thought we knew about our ancestors is at best incomplete, and at worst dangerously wrong.

For example: the standard model of the rise of civilization draws a very straight and neat line from the Neolithic revolution, which led to the invention of cities, the written word, etc., right up to the iPhone that’s burning a hole in your pocket.

Unfortunately, it isn't so simple.

Recent excavations at a site in southeast Turkey show an astonishing megalithic monument, covered with complex and beautiful symbols. It is called Göbekli Tepe.

Photo by Rolfcosar  

The problem is that it seems to date in its earliest incarnations as far back as 10,000 B.C., many thousands of years older than the earliest known megalithic monuments in Mesopotamia and Egypt. So old, in fact, that its builders, whoever they were, started their project as the last Ice Age was coming to a close, a remote epoch during which our ancestors were supposedly still sub-literate cave dwellers.

It is not only the extreme antiquity of the site that is unnerving to the scientific establishment. It exudes a complexity that spans time and space. Giant stone, multi-ton blocks were somehow carved, moved, and erected in bizarre circular patterns and covered with representations of animals living and extinct, both native to the area and alien. The circles span many miles, and there are sections of which are still being found and excavated. 

We have no idea how large it really is, who built it, what they used it for, or why. We know it was in use for thousands of years. And it was apparently, intentionally buried around 8,000 B.C.  The deliberate burial of such a complex, requiring the movement of hundreds of tons of earth is in itself as stunning an engineering achievement as the construction of the monument itself.

Keep in mind this site is not some fevered imagining of some History Channel fake expert or alien conspiracy theorist. This is an actual archaeological site being excavated and puzzled over by credentialed and thoroughly disturbed scientists. 

And in fact, excavators estimate that what they have found constitutes a mere 5 percent of the complex, and that digging for another century will still not reveal the whole of the structure.

It’s all so disturbing to scientists because they thought they knew the human story already. And they make their living telling that story, their entire lives are based upon the fact that they are experts in that story. How profoundly unsettling it must be to realize perhaps you understand the smallest sliver of a story that was more vast and complicated than you could have ever imagined.

And so it is with physicists confronting dark matter and energy. 

In the end, Western scientists may be forced, when asked to explain what the vast majority of existence rests upon, to answer:

 “Something, we know not what.”