The Universe: ‘The Important Stuff Is Invisible’

A detail of an image from the American Museum of Natural History’s space show Dark Universe (2013), directed by Carter Emmart and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, showing the ­distribution of so far unseen dark matter in the universe. It is simulated here with the use of a high-­resolution algorithm at the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and the Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory.
AMNH
A detail of an image from the American Museum of Natural History’s space show Dark Universe (2013), directed by Carter Emmart and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, showing the ­distribution of so far unseen dark matter in the universe. It is simulated here with the use of a high-­resolution algorithm at the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and the Stanford National Accelerator Laboratory.

The notion that there is more to the world than we can see was probably hardwired into our ancestors’ consciousness by natural selection. Only those in the African savannah who suspected that behind the rustling branches might lie a predator likely survived long enough to pass on their genetic information. In any case, as our mental facilities evolved further the notion of hidden realities became more formalized when human tribal groups created religions to help them make sense of the world around them, provide solace for the inequities of nature, and ultimately deal with their own mortality.

Hidden realities continued to dominate thinking as early religious myth gave way to more refined philosophical speculation. Searching for the fundamental essence underlying all matter became a common quest in Greek and Roman philosophy, while air, earth, fire, and water were sequentially dispensed with as providing such an essence. Ultimately philosophers from Empedocles to Aristotle decided that this fundamental essence must be something distinct; and Plato, through his derivation of five perfect solids, focused on a “quinta essentia,” a fifth essence. This also became known as “aether” and was imagined to comprise the fundamental essence of all space, permeating both heaven and earth. By connecting the stars and planets with terrestrial matter, this aether also motivated the ancient Alexandrian practice of astrology, which, while the aether has disappeared, unfortunately remains prevalent even today.

As religious myth and early philosophical speculation then gave way to scientific discovery and we developed machines to perceive what our eyes and ears could not, the fact that the world of our experience reflected merely a small part of a much greater whole became manifest. Light itself is just one small piece of a continuous spectrum of invisible electromagnetic waves that are filling the space around us and bombarding us at all times. When we look up at the night sky, we now realize that the seemingly dark emptiness between stars is not in fact empty. If one were to create a dime-sized hole between thumb and forefinger and hold it out…



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