I do not blame the cat who torments mice
Nor scold the child who overturns his food
I cradle both without e’en thinking twice
And reckon love a cause for gratitude.

But me—I mark my blameless days long gone
I dare not dream of innocence regained.
It’s guilt my daily nightmares dwell upon
My frank facade I know is frankly feigned.

Why not expand the compass of my ruth
Beyond the years which I excuse with youth?
Is universal innocence a truth
That’s viable and worthy of acclaim?
To view all souls about me without blame
And in the end to lift my veil of shame.

— JJM = #15 in the I Ching Sonnet Project

Crisis in Cosmology

The two main components of the Universe that we’re familiar with are ordinary matter and light. The matter is mostly atoms, and the light mostly microwaves.

The matter is strongly clumped together to make stars and galaxies separated by vast regions of empty space. But the light is distributed with almost perfect uniformity. The cosmic microwave background is the same everywhere with differences only in the fourth decimal place. The microwave temperature ranges from 2.721 to 2.729 Kelvin across the sky; but matter in a star is 26 orders of magnitude more dense than the isolated atoms we find in the space between galaxies.

We’d like to be able to understand the difference in terms of gravity pulling so much more strongly on the matter compared to the microwaves*. Fair enough. Let’s go back to a time when the light and the matter were stuck together. Much earlier in the history of the universe, the radiation was much more energetic and the temperature was much hotter. When it was hotter than about 10,000K there could be no atoms, because the heat was enough to free electrons from their atoms, creating a gas of charged particles, called a plasma.

A gas made of atoms is transparent; light goes right through it. But a plasma is like a dense fog that traps light. So in the hot, early universe, the light and the matter were tied together, such that hotter places were also denser. White noise made random waves that we think account for today’s tiny differences in the microwave temperature across the sky.

When the universe was 400,000 years old, the electrons and protons became cool enough to settle down into atoms, and from that point, matter and light were free to go their separate ways. Gravity caused the matter to start clumping, while the light streamed in all directions, nearly unaffected by gravity.

This is a story that was known at the end of the last century, when I was studying astrophysics. In 1997, the observations and the calculations became accurate enough to ask the question whether the known force of gravity could account for all the clumping of matter that has occurred, starting when the universe was 400,000 years old. The answer was “no”, and cosmologists started looking for some previously unknown form of matter that they called “dark matter”. Compared to the electrons, neutrons, and protons of ordinary matter, there would have to be about 5 times more dark matter to account for the observed clumping.

This is an embarrassment, of course. Scientists don’t like to make arbitrary assumptions about a substance that is all around us but which streams right through ordinary matter without interacting, and which evades every form of detection we have ever devised.

But this past summer, the situation has gotten worse, precipitating what Joe Silk calls a “crisis in cosmology”. The crisis is this:

What happened in 1997 was that two lines of evidence converged to answer a long-standing question in cosmology. The question was, how fast is the expansion of the universe slowing down due to mutual gravitational attraction. The first lines of inquiry came from refinement of the project begun begun by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s. The redshift of various supernovae in distant galaxies (redshift comes from recession) is plotted against the apparent brightness of those supernovae (apparent brightness is dimmed by distance). The second line is to count galaxies further and further away to get a sense of how much space is out there. Our intuition tells us that if you look a distance r, you see a sphere with area 4πr2. The number of galaxies at distance r should be proportional to 4πr2. But in general relativity theory, space can be structured differently from this. A lot of mass would create a strong gravitational pull, so there is actually less space than 4πr2 for very large distance r.

The two lines are tied together by general relativity theory, which relates the structure of space to the matter in it. Both lines agreed: The expansion isn’t slowing down; it’s speeding up. And there is actually more space than 4πr2 at large distance r. The implication was that the average mass density of the universe is negative. In response, cosmologists invented the concept of dark energy, a hypothetical substance that has negative mass, which is something that no one has ever seen on earth or in space. Dark matter is a different, unknown substance that it has a gravitational pull and and clumps up like ordinary matter and thins out as the universe expands. But dark energy is spread uniformly and has the same density today as it did when the universe was small. You can’t dilute it.

This is strange enough, but Silk’s crisis is a further paradox. There is a third way to measure the average density of gravitational matter in the universe, and that involves gravitational lensing of radio waves from the 3 degree background. These radio waves are left over from the glow of ordinary matter when it was opaque, less than 400,000 years after the Big Bang. They are almost but not quite uniform, for reasons that physicists like to explain as statistical fluctuations. And these tiny fluctuations are distorted when we look at them because of gravitational lensing from the matter that the radio waves have passed through along the way. How much gravitating matter would it take to cause the lensing? The answer comes out positive, as though there were no dark energy. So this line of evidence says the expansion of the universe should be slowing down, not speeding up. And the galaxy count should increase less rapidly than 4πr2 at large distance r, when the observations show that the count increases more rapidly.

The venerable Joe Silk says this is a “crisis”. Is that too strong a word? Maybe not. The whole science of cosmology is based on the conceit that the physics we study in the laboratory (and in particle accelerators) continues to work at the largest distances and the earliest times. The laws of physics were born with the Big Bang and are the same everywhere and for all time. We’ve already had to invent two strange, new forms of mass-energy that have never been observed in the lab, which calls the conceit into question. If Silk is right, we might have to modify the laws of physics themselves, and then anything goes. Our conceit was unjustified. Physicists would have to say that the laws we know and understand can’t explain what we see. We would lose the science of cosmology. Silk calculates the probability at 3.4 standard deviations, or 99.93%.


*Microwaves and other forms of light are also subject to gravity, but the force is too small to be important.

What is the cosmic web? - Big Think

Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,  
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,  
And hooked a berry to a thread;  
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,  
I dropped the berry in a stream  
And caught a little silver trout.  

When I had laid it on the floor  
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,  
And someone called me by my name:  
It had become a glimmering girl  
With apple blossom in her hair  
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.  

Though I am old with wandering  
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,  
I will find out where she has gone,  
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,  
And pluck till time and times are done,  
The silver apples of the moon,  
The golden apples of the sun.

— W. B. Yeats

Whitley Strieber tells how his wife, Anne, visited him after her death and counseled him to memorize this poem.

The human species is too young to have beliefs.
What we need are good questions.

— Anne Strieber, as conveyed through Whitley Strieber from the heareafter


The Children’s Hour

Between the dark and the daylight,
      When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
      That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
      The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
      And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
      Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
      And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
      Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
      To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
      A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
      They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
      O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
      They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
      Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
      In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
      Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
      Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
      And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
      In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
      Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
      And moulder in dust away!
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1860)
Today is International Children’s Day
by some reckonings, but not others

This classic poem is reckoned overly sentimental by some,
and by others is seen as a call to liberation from the round-tower
dungeon where children are inexorably confined as they grow to

Anachronistic Chronometer

On May 31, 1902, a diver exploring a 2500-year-old wrecakage off the coast of Greece retrieved an anachronistic clock-work mechanism. Though heavily corroded, it could be analyzed with x-rays to reveal its inner workings. We now know that it is a mechanical computer, with precisely-calibrated gears that can forecast lunar cycles and solar and lunar eclipses. A modern reconstruction has been created, demonstrating how it works.

X-rays also revealed an engraved instruction manual, written in old Greek.

Ancient knowledge of astronomy isn’t surprising, but the metal-working technology behind these precision gears says that an industrial infrastructure at least as advanced as 19th century Europe was available in ancient Greece.

Why is there no reference to this in any of the surviving text from that era, including Aristotle and Thucydides How do we reconcile this with the crude bronze coins that have been preserved from that time?

Greek Coins (by Mark Cartwright, CC BY-NC-SA)

A lost antedeluvian culture? Help from landed aliens? However you cut it, a re-writing of ancient history is long overdue.

Read more from The Verge

The End of America?

The Founders of our country did not intend for us to delegate the defense of liberty to a professional class of pundits or politicians or Constitutional scholars.

If we all take on the patriots’ task—and it begins with a revolution from within—there is every reason to believe we can save our country in time and restore liberty and democracy for our neighbors, our children, and ourselves.

— Naomi Wolf (2007)

Remember this

In reality we’re all spinning through black space in a universe which we neither understand nor control. Our brains process just a tiny fraction of the data taken in by our sensory organs and our sensory organs process just a tiny segment of the light and sound and other information which surrounds us. We can’t even predict what our next thought will be. The narrative of a separate individual moving through spacetime exerting full control over his or her fate is an illusion in multiple ways and on multiple levels, and the surest and least stressful place to stand is in full comfort with that reality.

Caitlin Johnstone