The dark energy backlash
April 21, 2007 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Prominent cosmologist Simon D.M. White has written a provocative paper posted to the astrophysics arxiv complaining that too much time is being devoted to the quest to understand the nature of the elusive dark energy: "Dark Energy is undeniably an interesting problem to attack through astronomical observation, but it is one of many and not necessarily the one where significant progress is most likely to follow a major investment of resources." He worries generally that observational cosmology/astrophysics/astronomy may turn away from the construction of instruments of general utility (such as the Hubble Space Telescope), to concentrate on a small number of massive experiments narrowly focused on solving particular problems (such as WMAP and the Large Hadron Collider), to the detriment of the "quirky small-science" type of astronomy.
posted by snoktruix (8 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I hope dark energy turns out to be possible to study by other means than its gravitational influence on the whole universe. Maybe via better understanding of the Casimir effect, or a better understanding of dark energy in string theory or brane-world models. Joe Polchinski (the co-founder of string theory) has some interesting things to say about dark energy in string theory here (RealPlayer audio, ugh). Maybe a deeper understanding of the quantum mechanics of the vacuum is needed.
posted by snoktruix at 3:17 PM on April 21, 2007

I find something exceedingly distasteful about only focusing research on areas of sure return.
posted by setanor at 3:50 PM on April 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

WMAP had multiple spin-offs beyond the "sure return", as no doubt will the LHC.

It's the huge teams I find distasteful. When just turning the terabytes of raw data you got into meaningful numbers and plots takes several years, there's not a lot of joy in being an experimentalist on one of these projects.
posted by snoktruix at 4:14 PM on April 21, 2007

Sean Carroll comments as does Rob Knop.

Myself, I'll note that
'He worries generally that observational cosmology/astrophysics/astronomy may turn away from the construction of instruments of general utility (such as the Hubble Space Telescope)'
perhaps suggests that many upcoming studies of dark energy will be useless for other purposes. This isn't true.
posted by edd at 4:15 PM on April 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

But in the words of Kanye West, "George Bush doesn't care about dark matter."
posted by wendell at 4:16 PM on April 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

one of his beefs with what he characterizes as "planned results" projects is that they don't capture the public imagination like, for instance, the hubble telescope has. as a dude who is solidly in the 'layman' category on advanced science, i just want to put out there that the LHC project has definitely captured my imagination regardless of whether the results are "planned." like who doesn't want to know what makes up most of the universe? i don't not. plus it's cool looking!

and this guy is dreamy.
posted by radiosig at 9:15 PM on April 21, 2007

Not being very familiar with the state of play in the fields he addresses, I am deeply sympathetic to his argument. There is a kind of arrogance that the particle physics crowd seems to pick up from their self-description as Fundamentalist. They've convinced society at large to fund amazingly ambitious experiments on the basis that they are getting to the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Increasingly, I find myself being unimpressed with the hype, or the metaphysics for that matter.

And yet, there is so much good physics and science that is less interested in The Laws, as opposed to addressing phenomena. I am far more intrigued by the fruits of the Hubble ST, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the search for extra-solar planets and helioseismology (or even geophysics research into oceanography, climate, or the solid earth), and I do worry that how we allocate our science budgets has been a little hijacked by the physics Fundies.
posted by bumpkin at 9:58 PM on April 21, 2007

the fruits of the Hubble ST

If you want to argue cost, NEVER cite the HST as an example of wise spending. Yes, it has returned amazing data, but HST, from conception to today, has spent far more money than Fermilab, Argonne, Stanford, Brookhaven and CERN combined.

You might have a good argument -- SDSS is an excellent example of how to spend little for great return -- but Hubble ruins that argument completely. When part of your cost base is five STS launches, not only are you not cheap, you're cheap-bar.1

1] Lame physics joke. Read as "anticheap".
posted by eriko at 5:43 PM on April 22, 2007

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