Last week, I suggested that we could use dark matter to organize our own cult and meet angels. I was joking. But it got me thinking… what is dark matter, anyway?

I’ve long held that human beings ignore a fundamental truth about how we perceive the world: we do it through our five senses. Our senses let us measure certain frequencies of light (vision), certain chemical reactions (smell, taste), speed of molecules (temperature), pressure (touch), and certain frequencies of air vibrations (hearing). That’s it. We developed physics by explaining what we experience with those senses. We expanded physics by expanding our senses with technology; we invested telescopes that let us see farther. While those technologies expanded our senses, they still measured pretty much the same phenomenon.

Humans are Like Frogs, Minus the Warts

But there’s nothing that says that those are the only phenomena that exist. Frogs, for example, can only see motion. They don’t see stationery objects. To a frog, an object appears when it’s moving and vanishes when it’s not. A frog would create a concept of physics that wouldn’t include stationery objects. A bug could be sitting right in front of a frog, and the frog wouldn’t know about it, as long as the bug stands still. This sucks for the frog, though it’s pretty awesome for the bug.

Maybe humans are frogs. Well, not totally, but mostly. Maybe there are phenomena that we simply don’t have the sensory apparatus to detect. Let’s call one of these “oobleck.” We’ve never built oobleck-detecting machines because we can’t even sense oobleck, so we don’t have any idea that oobleck exists, or what kind of machine might detect it.

Math Saves the Day!

Fortunately, we have math. Calculus and other sophisticated math was originally invented to help Newton with his work on physics and Leibniz with his work on intellectual property law1. The neat thing about math is that math can be used to produce a model of something we know about. For example, you can use math to create a model of how to tie a necktie. The math can then be used to extrapolate that model into realms it didn’t original model. Just a few years ago, math hypothesized the existence of many new necktie knots (85 total), which was then verified by actually tying them. The Pratt is my favorite.

Sometimes, math extrapolates things that don’t seem to make any sense. For example, you can use math to describe creating a funnel that has finite volume and infinite surface area. We tried very hard to make such a funnel in college, but were never able to create the physical object. We had to use a traditional funnel instead.

What’s happened in physics is that the math didn’t quite work. So they added a fudge factor and called it “dark matter.” I’m sure it began as one of those late night ideas you come up with after you have that party involving funnels. Physicists are always plugging in fudge factors and giving them cool names. Einstein came up with a fudge factor that he called “the cosmological constant.” Is that a cool name, or what?

But the reason physicists call themselves scientists is that once they recover from their hangovers, they go observe the universe and find out whether it matches what the math said it should match. If it matches, it means the math may have detected something that our senses couldn’t detect on our own. If we can figure out enough about how this strange thing behaves, we might be able to build machines to detect it. It would be like giving a frog an implant to detect bugs that are standing still. The frog still couldn’t directly see a stationery bug, but the technology could extend its senses in a way that would give it easy access to dinner. This sucks for the bug, though it’s pretty awesome for the frog.

Thus, dark matter.

I think dark matter is really neat. I think it could be the human equivalent of a stationery bug. Sure, it might be merely a place where our current understanding of the universe isn’t complete. Maybe it just means we got our equations wrong. But maybe it’s more. Much more. It could be a signpost into an entire realm of physical phenomena that our senses weren’t built to detect. It seems bizarre, incomprehensible, and magical to us, but it could result in a complete change in our understanding of reality. And who knows where it might lead? It’s a great, unexplored frontier. We just might find out we’re frogs, about to discover there’s such a thing as a bug that’s standing still. If that happens, there will be great rejoicing, and we’ll feast like frogs2!

It’s just a thought.

1 This is a joke. If you don’t get it, Google until you do.

2 Notice how optimistically I’ve skipped over the scenario where we discover that dark matter is the frog and we’re the stationery fly? I’ve been working on improving my optimistic outlook. I think it’s working.