Rushville Republican

September 13, 2012

Stuart: Are the galaxies controlled by WIMPS?

Don Stuart
Rushville Republican

RUSHVILLE — As I've mentioned many times in the column - or, if I haven't, let's presume hypothetically that I have Ñ I have an abiding passion for physics. My interest dates all the way back to mid-February of this year when I watched Ñ for the first time ever Ñ an episode of "The Big Bang Theory."

It was a re-run showing on cable channel TBS, and thanks to that station, which airs "Big Bang Theory" for 20 out of every 24 programming hours in the day, I've been able to watch practically every episode ever made. (By doing so, I've actually violated at least one law of physics Ñ the one about maintaining possession of the remote control even during bathroom breaks while watching six consecutive episodes of "Big Bang Theory" and thus preventing the wife and kids from changing the channel to something they want to watch.)

For those who don't watch this show, four of the five main characters are scientists Ñ two physicists, an astronomer and an engineer who works on space and jet propulsion stuff. Ninety-nine percent of the show's humor revolves around the portrayal of these guys as nerds. (For the insatiably curious, the fifth main character is a smokin' hot blonde woman.)

But the show deserves credit for communicating Ñ in and around the nerd jokes Ñ a great deal of actual science. Or at least dialogue that sounds reasonably science-y. Sometimes I admit I'm not sure if what I'm hearing is genuine astrophysicist talk or not. This mainly happens in scenes when the blonde is looking particularly smokin'.

But I don't recall to this point that "BBT" has ever spent any substantive time having the characters discuss questions that showed up in a Charlotte Observer newspaper article this week, under the headline "What are dark energy and dark matter?"

Now I don't mean to brag, but I actually knew the answer to this before reading the article: dark energy is what our new kitten burns off every night in that precious, beautiful moment when I've just drifted off to sleep, a sleep interrupted by said kitten bounding noisily all over house like an electron. And dark matter is the sneaker, or backpack, or some other furshlugginer object carelessly flung about the house by a kid, and upon which I stub my toe while trying to harness the kitten molecule.

I suppose there could be other definitions of dark matter and dark energy, and the Charlotte Observer sure seems to believe so, taking the word of astrophysicist Carla Frohlich for it. In the article, Dr. Frohlich (which I hope is pronounced "Frolic" because that's something we never envision an astrophysicist doing) said that "Dark matter is invisible matter that provides extra gravity that holds together galaxies."

She added that there are different theories about what dark matter is. My two favorites by a country mile are (1) MACHOS, or (2) WIMPS.

MACHOS are Massive Compact Halo Objects. I would never want to argue with the astrophysicists who came up with this name, but how can something be "massive" and "compact"? The only thing I can think of that qualifies would be the makeup container used to doll up Honey Boo Boo.

WIMPS are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. What I like about the WIMPS theory is that no one knows yet if they're real. An article on the internet puts it this way: "Although the existence of WIMPS in nature is hypothetical at this point, it would resolve a number of astrophysical and cosmological problems related to dark matter."

I tend to apply this line of thinking to my own life from time to time, for example: "Although the existence of a winning Powerball ticket in my hand is hypothetical at this point, it would resolve a number of problems related to me having to get up and go to work every day."

I'm not exactly sure how Dr. Frohlich and her fellow astrophysicists will tease out a solution to what dark matter is, or isn't. I did learn from my research, however, that they better figure it out pretty darn quick. Otherwise, the whole delicate balance of intergalactic space is in jeopardy of being thrown into a crazy mess by something called Ñ for real Ñ the Robust Association of Massive Baryonic Objects. . .the RAMBO.