tom thinks

What Next?, 2001/05/16:18:40

(Software development is in progress. Thanks for your patience, or amusement, as the case may be.)

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I was a judge in the Canada Wide Science Fair yesterday, on a team with four other judges looking at nine projects in the senior physical sciences division. The academic world in Kingston being small, I knew three of the four other judges on my team of old, one who was a student in the group I was part of at Caltech and the other two as profs at Queen's.

The exhibits we judged covered a wide range, but discussing things with the other judges I was reminded of an anomaly or two I'd not thought of in a while.

The biggest anomaly in the standard model is the existence of galaxies. The problem is that there's lots of evidence--notably the isotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation (MBR)--that indicates that the early universe was extremely homogeneous. That is, matter in the early universe was almost distributed with almost perfect uniformity. Today, it is manifestly clumpy, and the clumpiness occurs on all scales: we have little clumps of dust, bigger ones called planets, and ever bigger ones called stares, globular clusters, galaxies, galactic clusters and super-clusters, all the way up to the largest observable scales.

The best models we have of the universe can't explain this structure. There isn't enough baryonic matter (that's the ordinary stuff your car is made out of) to explain the density of the universe, and all the candidates for "dark matter" are pretty weakly interacting, and weakly interacting matter tends not to clump very much. Clumps form when matter gathers together under the force of gravity or the like, and then loses energy due to scattering. Without strong scattering between particles, the matter just passes by and disperses again, without ever forming a stable clump.

As time passes and the anomaly refuses to yield to sensible expedients, more and more radical proposals are made, but so far none of them have the two properties that scientists really like to see in a theory:

  • they explain something that otherwise can't be
  • they don't contradict anything already known

Of the two, the latter is by far the more stringent--we know a lot of stuff, and it is increasingly hard to propose alternatives that don't contradict something. Of course, some of what is already known is certainly wrong, but the challenge is finding out what it is. I have no doubt we will find it in time, but when we do it will be something that, while obviously wrong in hindsight, will be found where we least expect it.
I've been reading Lady Chatterly's Lover and finding it absolutely brilliant--the only truly modern novel about relations between men and women I've ever encountered. I don't think I'll write more about it until I'm done (and maybe not even until I've finished The First Lady Chatterly, which is an early draft that has also been published) but my recent silence on what I've been reading is not because I'm not reading, but because I'm so absorbed in doing so.
One of the things I've seen in a lot of web journals is "burnout", where the author simply stops writing, sometimes saying things like, "the time has come to kill off this persona." Sometimes such things happen at times of personal stress, such as the end of an important relationship--that's how Kari did it--but at others it seems that the stress of journalling itself has gotten to the person. They just aren't ready to show themselves this way any more.

So far, after a mere six or eight months of this, I'm doing ok--I don't see burnout anytime in the near future. Part of this is because I've got lots of impersonal stuff to write about, so if I need to pull my head back into my shell for a while--which I've felt the need to do up until recently--I can still enjoy myself by writing about less personal things until recently.

I've just had a look at the last month or so's entries, and while there is a lot that I didn't write about, I'm pretty happy with what I did. I feel that what I've written is a fair and honest--if radically limited--projection of me. That's pretty gratifying, because what I'm trying to do here is exactly "project me", and getting even a tightly circumscribed idea of who I am across is success of a kind. What I need to do next is think more deeply about what I want to get across next--there's lots more of me I want to show the world, but by nature I take these things one step at a time.
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