How much does Dark Matter matter?

I read with mixed feelings a release quoting Professor Wolfgang Rau of Kingston, Canada.  As one of the 60 researchers involved with the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiments, it is clear he considers the understanding of dark matter to be important. But how important is it?

My (extremely) select band of dedicated readers will know my opinions as regards cosmological matters.  I’m definitely more interested in solar system size, hyper-low redshift phenomena than what goes on at larger distances.  But I’m not totally myopic: I can appreciate that my stellar playground exists thanks to a causal chain of events including the galaxy, its neighbours, and ultimately the Cosmic Web of dark matter, which in turn exists thanks to the peculiar physics surrounding the Universe’s birth.

So I can see that I have a vested (if somewhat distant) interest in the results of the CDMS experiment, as dark matter is the scaffolding on which baryons (“conventional” matter) build galaxies, stars, planets and eventually biological organisms like you and me.  Even if that wasn’t true, I would still be interested to know exactly what dark matter actually is.

What pricked my conscience began with Professor Rau’s (attributed) statement that CDMS was among the top two or three experiments in this subject in the world.  I didn’t have a problem with this statement per se – it is true that in general, some experiments are more equal than others.  It was the secondary thought I had while reading this which grabbed my attention, which I’ll attempt to elucidate.

Science is becoming a corporate enterprise: I don’t mean that in the usual financial sense, but in the sense that large groups of scientists are becoming the rule rather than the exception.  The best example is the Large Hadron Collider – a worrying fraction of the world’s particle physicists have their hopes and dreams intertwined with this behemoth.  This is partly a natural consequence of the way that Science must advance, as we need to probe higher energy interactions, ergo we need a much bigger machine and large collaborations are more cost-effective. My concern is: is this damaging Science’s ability to be objective? If you have only one avenue for scientific research in your field, then how can you explore every argument and counter-argument that theories will provide you?

(This is probably why some particle physicist acquaintances of mine privately wish that the Standard Model is not conclusively proved by the LHC, and the Higgs Boson is not found, as this would put a cat amongst the pigeons, and conjure up the possibility of new research routes.)

Anyway, I’m rambling.  I guess my point is: how important is the characterisation of dark matter, or any individual scientific result, like a conclusive theory of planet formation or miracle cures for cancer or climate change? Should we be focussing Science like a laser beam on individual problems?

My feeling is that we shouldn’t.  Before you cry out, remember that like any big corporation, Science is at its best when it diversifies.  A replete body of research, replenished by an array of scientists with different mindsets, skills, and opinions, is a many splendoured thing. It keeps us flexible and adaptive to new problems.  It stops scientists from getting (gasp!) bored, and it re-ignites passion in them when an exotic problem arrives into their lives.  Science’s worth is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is also a reason why blue-sky science needs funding as well as applied sciences (as today’s applied science is yesterday’s blue-sky).

An overly focussed Science will only succeed in raising a tower with no foundation, no breadth of knowledge, no inspired youngsters arriving on the scene.  Monolithic experiments might allow us to probe areas of the Universe inaccessible to us previously, but there is also plenty of exploring to do on this side of the looking glass, and we can’t forget that.


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