Maxed Out 

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.

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.

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