Shall we shake the universe?
Shall we shake the universe? brightstars/gettyimages.com

In the previous decade, there were only two major events in the science of physics. One was the detection of the Higgs boson by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012. (The particle was needed to explain why particles have mass.) The other big event occurred in our very own (radioactive) backyard, at Hanford's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).

This mean machine (lasers, vacuums, mirrors), along with another one in the woods of Louisiana, can transform into sound the gravitational waves predicted in a mathematical model Albert Einstein formulated a decade after his special relativity. The cosmic ear of LIGO heard this small ripple across the medium of spacetime as a chirp in 2016.

And what caused these waves? Most physicists believe it was two super-massive black holes that collided seven billion light-years ago. But there are some scientists who believe that the universe we find ourselves in cannot produce an event of that magnitude in that way. According to their thinking, the stars needed to produce black holes that can shake the whole universe usually explode before they fall into a hole of their own making. So, if not black holes, what is it that caused the ripple that LIGO heard and confirmed? The anti-black hole scientists think it's an object that no one has every seen, a boson star.


Science Alert:
Led by Juan Calderón Bustillo of the Galician Institute of High Energy Physics in Spain, the research team has determined boson stars would be a perfect match for the numbers [needed to better explain the gravitational chirps].

"Our results show that the two scenarios are almost indistinguishable given the data, although the exotic boson star hypothesis is slightly preferred," said astrophysicist José Font of the University of Valencia in Spain.

"This is very exciting, since our boson-star model is, as of now, very limited, and subject to major improvements. A more evolved model may lead to even larger evidence for this scenario and would also allow us to study previous gravitational-wave observations under the boson-star merger assumption."


This object, the boson star, is said to be made of stuff that is invisible, dark matter. This mysterious substance claims a stunning 27% of the universe's total "mass-energy density." The influence or action of this "matter" is well understood, but what it is is anybody's guess.

Now, when we combine dark matter with dark energy, some unknown force that accounts for 73% of the universe's known behavior, we are basically left with an account of everything we see, everything we love, every moment we experience, everyone who came and went that sits at around 4% of the universe. This sounds devastating, particularly when you consider that this small part of the known (4%) is what constitutes the greatest achievement of physics, the much unloved Standard Model of particle physics—unloved because it's so messy, so un-pretty, so much like a hoary mop on a cosmic floor.

But the Standard Model is beautiful, if your standard of beauty is not ruled by the mathematical "will to nothingness," which is the unification of all things (or of all the known forces) into a seamless symmetry. And perfect symmetry is perfectly pointless. We can only understand and enjoy a broken universe.

But as Sabine Hossenfelder points out in her book, Lost in Math, mathematical beauty is unreal and also running out of ideas. It is interesting that physics only had two major events in the second decade of the new millennium. And both of those events confirmed nothing new. Higgs boson was formulated not long after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Gravitational waves emerged from Einstein's theory as bullets were wheezing past the head of Adolf Hitler in World War One.

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We can describe the period between mid-1970s and today as the long and growing silence of physics. Around the time Travis Bickle was talking to himself in a mirror, reality stopped yapping away at the best minds in the field. And around the world of the known super-inflated the known unknown world of dark stuff and the dark force, which was confirmed in 1998.

By the look of things, we can expect a future of more known unknowns rather than more known knows. The reason for this can be found in the simple explanation: matter may not be all that. Matter—protons, electrons, quarks, and all the other stoff in the Standard Model—could be exceptional and not the ultimate elements of the universe (a word that is certainly misleading).

Ordinary matter is important to us because we would not be here without it. But is not this feeling of obvious importance exactly what placed the earth at the center of the universe for thousands of years? Are we not doing the same with our own constituents? What matters always happens to be what matters to us.

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