I don't really regret the weird, meandering path I took through the educational system -- but I have to admit to a bit of envy when it comes to people who are true experts in their field.
My inveterate dilettantism means I'm reasonably conversant in a lot of areas, but don't really have a deep understanding of anything. Being a dabbler is neither a bad background to have as a high school teacher nor as a blogger, but it does mean that I often run into topics and think, "Wow, I really wish I could wrap my brain around this."
This happened just yesterday when I happened upon a paper in The European Physical Journal C called, "A Warped Scalar Portal to Fermionic Dark Matter." My Bachelor of Science diploma in physics should have come with a sticky note appended to it that says, "... yeah, but he pretty much sucked as a physics student." I struggled in virtually all of my upper-level physics classes, due to a combination of lack of focus and troubles with mathematics that I never figured my way out of. The result is that I have a degree in physics, but reading an academic paper on the topic loses me after the first couple of paragraphs.
But so much of physics is so incredibly cool that I wish I understood it better. The paper I took a look at yesterday (it'd be a vast exaggeration to say I "read" it) is a real coup -- if its findings bear out, it stands a good chance of solving two of the most perplexing questions of subatomic physics.
The first is akin to the planetary spacing issue I dealt with here a couple of days ago. It asks a curious question: why do the fundamental particles have the masses they do? Photons are massless; neutrinos damn close, but have a very tiny amount of mass; electrons are next (along with their relatives, muons), then protons and neutrons, and on up the scale to very heavy (and short-lived) particles like the "double-charmed xi baryon" which has four times the rest mass of a proton and a half-life so short it hasn't been measured yet, but is probably less than 10 ^-14 seconds (that's a decimal point, followed by thirteen zeros and a one -- better known to us non-physicists as "really, really short").
The other question is one I've looked at here before; the nature of the mysterious "dark matter" that makes up something like a quarter of the known mass of the universe, but thus far has resisted all detection by anything but its mysterious gravitational signature. We don't know what it's made of, nor how (or if) it interacts with itself or other forms of matter.
I've commented about it that just as the odd constancy of the speed of light in a vacuum regardless of the reference frame of the observer waited around for a genius -- in this case, Einstein -- to explain it, the baffling dark matter is waiting for this century's Einstein to have the requisite insight.
Well, the waiting may be over. A trio of physicists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz -- Adrian Carmona, Javier Castellano Ruiz, and Matthias Neubert -- have come up with a theoretical framework that, if it bears out, explains both the fundamental particle masses and the nature of dark matter in one fell swoop, by proposing an additional fundamental particle and force that act on matter through a tightly-coiled extra spatial dimension.
A press release at Science Daily describes their research this way:
In a recent paper published in the European Physical Journal C, the researchers found a spectacular resolution to this dilemma. They discovered that their proposed particle would necessarily mediate a new force between the known elementary particles (our visible universe) and the mysterious dark matter (the dark sector). Even the abundance of dark matter in the cosmos, as observed in astrophysical experiments, can be explained by their theory. This offers exciting new ways to search for the constituents of the dark matter -- literally via a detour through the extra dimension -- and obtain clues about the physics at a very early stage in the history of our universe, when the dark matter was produced."After years of searching for possible confirmations of our theoretical predictions, we are now confident that the mechanism we have discovered would make the dark matter accessible to forthcoming experiments, because the properties of the new interaction between ordinary matter and dark matter -- which is mediated by our proposed particle -- can be calculated accurately within our theory," said study co-author Matthias Neubert. "In the end -- so our hope -- the new particle may be discovered first through its interactions with the dark sector."
This, gentle readers, is what is known as "Nobel Prize material."
If, of course, it is confirmed by further research and investigation. The thing that makes me hopeful is that the theories with the greatest likelihood of success are the ones that explain several problems at once; consider, for example, how the quantum mechanical model simultaneously accounted for the energy levels in hydrogen atoms, the bizarre double-slit experiment, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the collapse of the wave function (most famous for being responsible for the Schrödinger's Cat phenomenon). A really powerful model has enormous breadth, depth, and explanatory power, and this one -- at least from a preliminary look -- seems to have all three.
But, as I pointed out at the beginning, that's from the point of view of a dilettante. I'm hardly qualified to assess whether the Carmona et al. paper will withstand scrutiny from the experts or will end up as another in the very long list of ideas that didn't pan out. So keep your eyes on the news.
It might be that we are about to turn the lights on in the dark sector for the first time ever.