Stumped Scientists :)

6/13/2015

Honest Scientists need Humility to handle their inability to explain many, many things

Here’s an excerpt from an article I read today. Thought it was kind of amusing. ;)

—Dan Z, Phd

Cosmic Confusion: Big Errors in Astrophysics

“I would like to talk about a very serious embarrassment,” said Mario Livio, a proclaimed scientist and author, at a panel at the World Science Festival in New York City last month…The embarrassment Livio referred to is sometimes known as the vacuum catastrophe. Truly empty space, sucked dry of any air or particles, still has an inherent energy to it, according to observations, Livio said. But when scientists use theories of quantum mechanics to try and calculate this vacuum energy, their results differ from the measured results by about 120 orders of magnitude, or the number 1 followed by 120 zeros.

“This is a large number even in astronomy,” Livio said. “Especially for a discrepancy.”

One of the panelists, Josh Frieman, drove home how alarming this error is. “To make a math error that big you know you really have to work hard at it. It’s not easy,” said Frieman, who is a senior staff scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the current director of the Dark Energy Survey.

Even by including certain adjustments, physicists have only been able to reduce the error to about 55 orders of magnitude, Livio said.

Panelist Adam Riess, a professor of space studies at Johns Hopkins University and an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, added that if the calculated value of the vacuum energy were true, “then the acceleration would have been so strong it would have ripped apart galaxies, stars, planets, before anything formed,” Riess said. “So just our existence tells us that that calculation is grossly inaccurate.”

But where does such an astoundingly large error come from? So far, the panelists said, scientists are stumped.

“There are various possibilities,” Livio said. “One possibility is that we really don’t know how to calculate the energy of the vacuum at all. Or that maybe even the energy of the vacuum is not even something that you can calculate from first principles.”

Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University who studies exotic matter in the universe, emphasized how the deck seems stacked against a universe that is hospitable to life. “The fact is that you need about six numbers to describe all the properties of our universe — the past, present, future. And we can measure [those numbers] to varying degrees of accuracy. And if any of these numbers actually departed even very slightly from what we measure them to be, then life would not have been possible,” Natarajan said. “So there’s a real fine tuning problem. […] Things have to be just so to have the universe that we have.” So why did our universe end up with the perfect arrangement of variables? Is there a physical cause that scientists can uncover and describe mathematically?

Natarajan offered another alternative to why the vacuum energy might be incalculable. “The other possibility also is a slightly humbler approach, which is, why should we actually have the cognitive apparatus to comprehend everything?” she said. “That’s another line of reasoning.”

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