Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the dark

"Dark energy, an invisible, undetectable force that seems to break all the rules of physics may be about to redefine the universe," says last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, as the subtitle to an article on dark matter and dark energy by Richard Panek.

Dark matter is a presumed non-luminous massy stuff that accounts for 22 percent of the universe. It's presence is signaled in the rotation of galaxies, which seem to require more mass than is visible to keep them from flying apart.

Dark energy is an even more mysterious something that makes up 74 percent of the universe. Its presence is signaled as an acceleration of the outward flight of the galaxies against the pull of gravity.

That leaves 4 percent to contain everything we thought the universe was made of, including us.

If dark matter and dark energy exist, it would have "philosophical consequences of the civilization-altering variety," writes Panek. The ultimate Copernican Revolution, he calls it; not only are we not at the center of things, we re not even made of the same stuff as most of what is.

I once mentioned to a friend that 96 percent of the stuff of the universe is unknown and possibly unknowable. He responded, with his usual wry wit: "It's probably the best stuff too."

Well, maybe. I'm not about to get all hot and bothered. Anyone who still thinks we are the be-all and end-all of creation hasn't been paying attention. A glance at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph -- tens of thousands of galaxies in a part of the sky you could cover with a pinhead held at arm's length -- should pretty much put the kibosh on any shred of self-importance we assumed on the cosmic scale. Yet still we have preachers with Rolex watches and Lincoln Town Cars telling us the Creator of the universe wants us to tithe, and popes who sit on Renaissance thrones channeling "infallibly" the Creator's thoughts.

We have been sufficiently humbled cosmically. It's time now to strive for some terrestrial humility. Until we have the simple modesty to treat each other as equal accidents on this pinprick of ordinary matter called Earth, I wouldn't worry about 96 percent of the universe we know nothing about.