Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's a mystery?

While I'm on the subject of mystery, which I have been a lot lately, even though it may not technically be a "subject" as such because we don't, by definition, know what it's a perspective from Leonard Susskind:

[I]n the past few years the science sections of newspapers have been reporting that cosmologists are mystified by two astonishing "dark" discoveries. The first is that 90 percent of the matter in the universe is made of some shadowy, mysterious substance called dark matter. The other is that 70 percent of the energy in the universe is composed of an even more ghostly mysterious stuff called dark energy. The words mystery, mysterious, and mystified get a very thorough workout in these articles.

I have to admit I find neither discovery all that mysterious. To me, the word mystery conveys something that completely eludes rational explanation. The discoveries of dark matter and energy were surprises but not mysteries. Elementary-particle physicists (I am one of them) have always known that their theories were incomplete and that many particles remain to be discovered. The tradition of postulating new, hard-to-detect particles began when Wolfgang Pauli correctly guessed that one form of radioactivity involved an almost invisible particle called the neutrino. Dark matter is not made of neutrinos, but by now physicists have postulated plenty of particles that could easily form the invisible stuff. There is no mystery there--only the difficulties of identifying and detecting those particles.
Susskind goes on: "The real mystery raised by modern cosmology concerns a silent 'elephant in the room,' an elephant, I might add, that has been a huge embarrassment to physicists: why is it that the universe has all of the appearances of having been specially designed so that life forms like us can exist?"

As Susskind's book is called The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, we can be sure that for him (as for me), the answer "[A] god did it" is neither helpful nor interesting. The book, which I am just now starting to read, promises to untangle the seemingly simple (and seemingly wrong) "anthropic principle." I thought I had finally understood this thing awhile ago, but now guess I don't.

Anyway, it does seem worth considering what we really mean when we use the term "mystery." By this definition, a murder mystery really isn't one. It's a...oh, hell, Rumsfeld is a prophet after all..."known unknown."

Now, once more into the cosmological breach.

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