Physics is traditionally viewed as a hard subject requiring a great deal of mathematical prowess, devotion and perseverance to muster the subject matter. To a large extent, it is definitely true. But it does offer a great deal of satisfaction, excitement and sense of achievement.
The 21st century physics, spanning from quantum computing to super-thin layer material called graphene to ultra-efficient LED bulbs to efficient harnessing of renewable energies to black holes to dark matter and dark energy, the range is endless and it will disappoint no one with its vast challenges and ensuing excitement.
In our day-to-day lives we experience matter comprising protons and neutrons bundled together in the nucleus of an atom and electrons whizzing around the nucleus. Some decades ago, these protons, neutrons and electrons were thought to be the fundamental particles of all matter; but not anymore. Now, quarks (six types) are thought to be the fundamental particles, which are glued together by force particles to form protons and neutrons.
These atoms and molecules making up matter here on earth are what we are accustomed to. The laws of physics, or for that matter natural sciences, were developed to explain the natural processes as we encounter in our lives.
The basic physical principles are like these: a body has a defined size comprising length, breadth and height; it has a mass and weight; it is visible when there is sufficient light. If we push a body, we impart momentum, which is the product of mass and velocity. As it has the mass, it has gravity, meaning it attracts every other body and every other body attracts this body. These are the basic properties of a body as described in classical physics.
We live on a very tiny planet, called Earth, which revolves round the star, called Sun. There are eight other planets, thousands of satellites, comets and asteroids, all held together by the gravity of the Sun. The Sun, though extremely bright and overwhelmingly powerful to us, is a small star in our galaxy, called the Milky Way. It is estimated that there are over a billion, yes, 1,000,000,000 stars, many of them are much bigger than the Sun, in our galaxy. Now our galaxy is by no means the dominant galaxy in the universe. Cosmologists estimate that there are around one billion galaxies in our universe! Some of these galaxies are hundreds or even thousands of times bigger or massive than our galaxy. There are massive black holes at the centres of most of the galaxies, exerting gravitational pull to keep the galaxy together. Some of these black holes are millions of times bigger than the Sun. Now you can have a feel of how big our universe is!
Physics, or more appropriately astrophysics, studies the processes of these vast expanse of celestial bodies. The Sun as well as our galaxy, the Milky Way having over a billion stars are not static. The stars are spinning, the galaxy is spiralling, and everything is in motion.
It was estimated, purely on physical principles, that the stars at the edges of a galaxy should move slower than the central ones, as the force of gravity of the galaxy is weaker away from the centre. But astronomical observations show that stars orbit at more or less at the same speed regardless of their distance from the centre. That was a great shock to the astrophysicists. The way this puzzle was tackled was by assuming that there are massive unseen matters that exert tremendous gravitational pull to keep the stars moving at nearly the same speed and that mysterious matter is called the dark matter.
There are other tell-tale signs that there is something amiss in the material accounting of the universe. A strange bright glow spread over the length of the Milky Way was thought to be due to ordinary pulsars (pulsating stars) along the length. But now it is thought that dark matter may be responsible for this glow! But how, physics does not know yet.
But is this dark matter a fudge to solve the apparent conflict of physical behaviour with observations? Not really, this is how science progresses. Well thought out ideas are produced and those ideas are tested and cross-examined against observations and the idea or concept that passes the tests is taken as the valid scientific concept.
But how do we know dark matter is there, if we cannot see them. We cannot see them because dark matter does not interact with light or electromagnetic radiation such as visible light, infra-red, ultra violet, radio waves, gamma rays and so on. Light goes straight through the dark matter, as if it is not there.
It should, however, be pointed out that dark matter is not the same thing as black hole. A black hole is made up of everyday particles (matter particles and force particles) – electrons, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, photons etc. Its gravity has just become so strong (because of its mass and super-compacted size) that it pulls and crushes everything to its core and nothing can escape from its clutches, not even light! A beam of light coming close to a black hole is pulled right insight and that is the end of that light beam never to be seen again!
Dark matter, although invisible, does exert gravitation pull and this gravitational pull that makes dark matter attractive to scientists. The Universe, although expanding, is not in danger of runaway expansion. There is something that is holding the whole thing together and that something may be the dark matter.
Immediately following the Big Bang, the then Universe expanded very rapidly, known as inflationary phase, for tens of millions of years followed by expansion for some billion years and then it stabilised for a few billion years and now it is again in the expansion phase. The present expansion is that the space itself is expanding and so every star and every galaxy is moving away from every other star or galaxy. What is giving these celestial bodies energy (repulsive in this case) to move away from each other? Scientists came up with the proposition that there must be some unknown, unseen energy, which is now called the dark energy.
On purely material and energy balance of the Universe, it is thought that our visible (and known) Universe accounts for only 4.9 percent of the total Universe, dark matter accounts for 26.8 percent and dark energy for 68.3 percent. So, we only know in the vast mind-boggling universe extending over 13.8 billion light years a meagre 5 percent and the remaining 95 percent is hidden or unknown to us!
Scientists all over the world are trying hard to find evidence of dark matter and dark energy. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is trying to find any remotest evidence of dark matter and energy. On theoretical basis, some scientists are proposing that dark energy may emanate from a fifth form of force, which is yet unknown. The four forces that we know are electromagnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear and gravitational forces. The fifth force may be a variant of gravitational force – a repulsive gravitational force – that comes into play in the vast intergalactic space.
When Einstein produced the general theory of relativity in 1915, he introduced, almost arbitrarily, a parameter, called the cosmological constant, into the theory to counter the effects of gravitational pull and make the Universe a static one. That cosmological constant effectively introduced the repulsive effects. It may be pointed out that the Universe was thought to be static at that time. But only a few years later when it was incontrovertibly shown that the Universe was, in fact, expanding, Einstein humbly admitted that it was his “biggest mistake”. Now, more than hundred years later, it is assumed that the cosmological constant may be taken to be the quantity to cater for the dark energy! Could Einstein’s “biggest mistake” be not only a correct presumption but also a saviour of modern cosmology?
- Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist