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Knowing Dark Matter

Dr Thoko Kamwendo

(Photo by Greg Rakozy)

ECLAS Post-Doctoral Researcher Dr Thoko Kamwendo responds to the recent senior leaders’ conference, Black Holes, Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Depths of Faith and Space.

It’s the invisible

Dark Matter we are not made of

That I’m afraid of.

Most of the universe consists of this […]

Dark Matter is another

Matter. Cosmologists don’t know

From Frederick Seidel’s “Invisible Dark Matter”

 

ECLAS recently organised a senior church leader conference on Cosmology at Durham University. Over the two half-days, physicists Carlos Frenk, Isabel Santos and Willem Elbers from the Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics bestowed us with a wealth of information about how the cosmos works from the early universe to the very (very!) far future.

They also intrigued us with the mystery of dark matter and dark energy. We were told that the universe is made up of roughly 27% dark matter, and 68% dark energy but that physicists are working hard to discover what dark matter and dark energy really are.

I wasn’t surprised by these scientists’ emphasis on what remains to be discovered about the universe. This kind of focus on the not-yet-known is conventional in many of the sciences. The notion of discovery and the implied desire to reveal the hitherto hidden provides forward momentum in knowledge-making endeavours. Besides, the Revd Prof. David Wilkinson, a trained astrophysicist, also assures me that it speaks to a core element of physics in particular. Physicists are ultimately interested in the makeup of the universe – knowing in physics is knowing composition.

What struck me as I was listening, was how much scientists do know about dark matter. Physicists know how much dark matter there is relative to other matter and energy – including dark energy. They can recognise its presence and its absence. And they know how it moves. They know its effects on matter and energy around it and the role it plays in the expansion of the universe. They know how it moves other matter. Still, astrophysicists and cosmologists will tell you that they don’t know what dark matter is. The snag, we were told, is not having identified the particles that it consists of.

Thinking and learning about dark matter made me reflect on the differences between what counts as knowing in my field of the sociology of science and what counts as knowing in physics. Knowing a social phenomenon well enough to recognise its presence and its absence, to quantify it in relation to other social phenomena, understanding how it travels and translates across contexts, and knowing its effects on lived human experience, would be considered not just knowing it, but knowing it very well.

In my conversation with one of the scientists in the pub afterwards, I had trouble thinking of an analogy to explain my thinking. Now, in the light of day, something like ‘love’ comes to mind. Subjective and experiential as it is, we know how love moves, how love moves matter, and its effects on matter and energy around it. And we know how much of it there is relative to other comparable phenomena like hatred. We can recognise its presence and its absence.

But we don’t know what love is. As far as I know, there has been no discovery of love particles. Maybe that’s because there aren’t any. Or maybe it’s because no one is looking for them. This is the point of the analogy for me. I’m not saying that love is like dark matter. Not in any way other than the ways in which they are currently known. For me, hearing about dark matter provided me with a good example of different types of knowing. Both in the ways that humanity is capable of holding different kinds of knowing, and in the ways in which one type of knowing in one domain may not just be unnecessary, but impossible in another.

Making this point in the context of science and religion, it may sound like I am dangerously close to advocating for Gould’s Non-overlapping magisteria. I am not. But I am suggesting that it is time we fully recognise that the requirements and the benchmarks of knowledge need not be the same across the board.

The overwhelming feeling for me is relief and gratitude that there are indeed different ways of knowing. It is a relief to rest in the thought that it is enough for me to know love as I do even as it is unsatisfactory for the cosmologist to know dark matter in the same way. In short, I am happy that there are many ways of knowing, that not all those ways need apply to all things, and that I was provided with a reminder of that.

For me, it takes the edge off some of the negative feelings that uncertainty and not knowing can induce. It is the conflation of ways of knowing that makes Walt Whitman feel “sick and tired” after listening to a lecture by “The Learn’d Astronomer”. It is what creates the pain discernible in Frederick Seidel’s poem on Invisible Dark Matter quoted above.

Cosmologists don’t know dark matter. But they do. Dark matter is not like other matter(s) in what we ask ourselves to know about it. When it comes to love I don’t need to fear the not-knowing of the cosmologist. I know all I need to know. And Seidel is right. We are not made of dark matter. Dark matter is another matter. But in a significant sense, we are made of love. And sometimes of its absence.

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