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The dark matter that holds things together

If Fritz Zwicky were alive today, he’d be a very happy man. He’d still be confused as ever, but happy.

If Fritz Zwicky were alive today, he’d be a very happy man. He’d still be confused as ever, but happy.

Fritz wouldn’t be happy because Whistler’s council finally – and one hopes definitively – killed one of the many rogue white elephants that have been terrorizing the town ever since it became an addendum to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics™. I’m happy about that. Finally relieved of the burden to even think about building a sorely-needed sledge hockey arena cum iconic tourist attraction on the very aptly-named Lot 1/9, Whistler council dodged a debt bomb. Cooler and more fiscally responsible heads prevailed. Thank you one and all for delivering the coup de grace to this harebrained idea. Hopefully we can now get back to building a community instead of a sideshow.

Fritz knows nothing of this momentous decision. That’s because Fritz is long dead and couldn’t be bothered with bread and circuses like the Olympics™.

But Fritz erected his own big top 73 years ago and sent the scientific community into one of its frequent head scratching dithers. Fritz theorized, long before Donny Rumsfeld, that we didn’t know what we don’t know, that is to say, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Fritz shined the light of science and math on one of the latter.

Until he saw the light, er, dark, scientists thought the universe was made up of matter, things like Chevys, washing machines, gaseous clouds, stars, planets, you know, matter. Stuff you could see and touch and weigh. It was a well-known fact, in fact, that the universe contained all the matter that mattered.

But Fritz had noted that distant clusters of galaxies – very large collections of matter – were moving way too fast to hold together if all they contained was matter. What mattered to Fritz was the stuff that held those clusters together. He wasn’t certain what it was and he couldn’t see it so he called it dark matter.

Now in most circles, someone who argues for the existence of something no one can see, touch, weigh, or drive to work would be considered a bit of a loose cannon, or cleric. But earth scientists and astronomers had been dealing with such incorporeal things as gravity for long enough to know a good unifying theory long before the search for a good unifying theory came along. They dug dark matter.

And now, finally, after 73 years, they’ve finally found the stuff. In the aptly-named Bullet Cluster, home to the biggest, most violent collision in the known universe, they’ve carefully sorted and weighed the gas and stars and Chevys and found there was a whole bunch of stuff unaccounted for. Dark matter, it turns out. That they’ve tried to explain it by using a metaphor of "two vast wads of raisin oatmeal" colliding with each other seems somehow less cosmic than I imagined. But being a raisin hater, I can live with it. I’ve always considered raisins dark matter.

But with dark matter reduced to raisins and Pluto about to be downgraded from planet to planet emeritus or iceball – the whole idea of creating a new definition of "planet" that would include the inaptly-dubbed Plutons was scotched by, among others, the Italians who already call Pluto Pluton and posit that if the moon is a big pizza pie, Pluton is more like a fast-food calzone you discover in the back of your freezer left over from the last time Italy won the World Cup and therefore inappropriate for the name of a whole class of planets – I’m seeking solace in the part of the cosmos I know best.

That would be the Big Dipper. I know, the Big Dipper is to the cosmos what robins are to the world of ornithology: prosaic and boring. But I know what I like and I like the Big Dipper. For starters, I can always find it, I don’t need a telescope to see it, it always points to the North Star – not that I’ve ever really needed to locate the North Star – and if you squint hard enough and put yourself into the mindset of Early Man, you too could mistake it for a big bear.

Ironically enough, it was bears that got me started on this whole cosmic tangent. I’d explain how that works but it’d take the rest of the column and several more years of intense therapy. Trust me.

It actually started out as another Math is Hard column but I got lost somewhere in a snaky quadratic equation. Who knows, maybe one of you can help me figure it out. It goes something like this. Bobby – name changed to protect the clueless – has four roommates and at least one couch-surfing friend. Between them, they have zero cars. They also have five large bags of garbage and three small bags of garbage they’re saving until (a) one of them remembers to ask a friend with a car to take it to one of the two garbage compactor sites in Whistler, (b) they get ambitious enough to take it themselves since they seem to have no problem bringing food home and creating garbage without a car or, (c) a bear breaks in to eat the garbage thereby relieving them of their adult responsibilities. So far, so good; but it gets harder. A 24-year-old male surprises a single bear at three o’clock in the morning in a 4x12 mudroom with three inside doors only one of which leads to the eight bags of garbage. The bear, startled and no doubt pissed off to be interrupted while eating, delivers one swipe with its paw, containing four sizable claws, resulting in 27 stitches… to the guy, not to the bear’s paw.

With me so far? Good. Now the numbers get big. The conservation office has fielded 800 bear-related calls this year, nearly twice as many as the previous record. There have been 63 home break ins committed by bears. Bears have only one goal in life: to eat. Bears have what we might call low intelligence, IQwise.

So the question is, when you factor in all those numbers, do any of the six people staying in the one house score higher, IQwise, than the bear? Personally I’m having trouble coming up with any score for any of them that rises above two digits. But then, they remind me uncomfortably of the losers I’ve had as roommates in the past. Adult enough to be able to buy food and liquor and bring it home, adult enough to prepare what passed for meals and enjoy refreshing beverages to excess, not adult enough to do their dirty dishes or take care of their garbage.

Fellas – and I use that term collectively – this is part of the social contract if you’re going to live in Whistler. Yes it would be nice if the Muni could get up to speed with its archaic garbage collection infrastructure. It’d be nice if they sewered-up on Alta Lake Road. But that’s someday stuff. For now, if you want to live here, get off yer asses and take out the garbage. Frankly, we’d rather have the bears than you if it comes down to a hard choice.