Archive for December 7, 2018

Negative Mass, Phlogiston and the State of Modern Cosmology

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 7, 2018 by telescoper

A graphical representation of something or other.

I’ve noticed a modest amount of hype – much of it gibberish – going around about a paper published in Astronomy & Astrophysics but available on the arXiv here which entails a suggestion that material with negative mass might account for dark energy and/or dark matter. Here is the abstract of the paper:

Dark energy and dark matter constitute 95% of the observable Universe. Yet the physical nature of these two phenomena remains a mystery. Einstein suggested a long-forgotten solution: gravitationally repulsive negative masses, which drive cosmic expansion and cannot coalesce into light-emitting structures. However, contemporary cosmological results are derived upon the reasonable assumption that the Universe only contains positive masses. By reconsidering this assumption, I have constructed a toy model which suggests that both dark phenomena can be unified into a single negative mass fluid. The model is a modified ΛCDM cosmology, and indicates that continuously-created negative masses can resemble the cosmological constant and can flatten the rotation curves of galaxies. The model leads to a cyclic universe with a time-variable Hubble parameter, potentially providing compatibility with the current tension that is emerging in cosmological measurements. In the first three-dimensional N-body simulations of negative mass matter in the scientific literature, this exotic material naturally forms haloes around galaxies that extend to several galactic radii. These haloes are not cuspy. The proposed cosmological model is therefore able to predict the observed distribution of dark matter in galaxies from first principles. The model makes several testable predictions and seems to have the potential to be consistent with observational evidence from distant supernovae, the cosmic microwave background, and galaxy clusters. These findings may imply that negative masses are a real and physical aspect of our Universe, or alternatively may imply the existence of a superseding theory that in some limit can be modelled by effective negative masses. Both cases lead to the surprising conclusion that the compelling puzzle of the dark Universe may have been due to a simple sign error.

For a skeptical commentary on this work, see here.

The idea of negative mass is no by no means new, of course. If you had asked a seventeenth century scientist the question “what happens when something burns?”  the chances are the answer would  have involved the word phlogiston, a name derived from the Greek  φλογιστόν, meaning “burning up”. This “fiery principle” or “element” was supposed to be present in all combustible materials and the idea was that it was released into air whenever any such stuff was ignited. The act of burning separated the phlogiston from the dephlogisticated “true” form of the material, also known as calx.

The phlogiston theory held sway until  the late 18th Century, when Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that combustion results in an increase in weight implying an increase in mass of the material being burned. This poses a serious problem if burning also involves the loss of phlogiston unless phlogiston has negative mass. However, many serious scientists of the 18th Century, such as Georg Ernst Stahl, had already suggested that phlogiston might have negative weight or, as he put it, `levity’. Nowadays we would probably say `anti-gravity.

Eventually, Joseph Priestley discovered what actually combines with materials during combustion:  oxygen. Instead of becoming dephlogisticated, things become oxidised by fixing oxygen from air, which is why their weight increases. It’s worth mentioning, though, the name that Priestley used for oxygen was in fact “dephlogisticated air” (because it was capable of combining more extensively with phlogiston than ordinary air). He  remained a phlogistonian longer after making the discovery that should have killed the theory.

The standard cosmological model involves the hypothesis that about 75% of the energy budget of the Universe is in the form of “dark energy”. We don’t know much about what this is, except that in order to make our current understanding work out it has to act like a source of anti-gravity. It does this by violating the strong energy condition of general relativity.

Dark energy is needed to reconcile three basic measurements: (i) the brightness distant supernovae that seem to indicate the Universe is accelerating (which is where the anti-gravity comes in); (ii) the cosmic microwave background that suggests the Universe has flat spatial sections; and (iii) the direct estimates of the mass associated with galaxy clusters that accounts for about 25% of the mass needed to close the Universe.

A universe without dark energy appears not to be able to account for these three observations simultaneously within our current understanding of gravity as obtained from Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I’ve blogged before, with some levity of my own, about how uncomfortable this dark energy makes me feel. It makes me even more uncomfortable that such an enormous  industry has grown up around it and that its existence is accepted unquestioningly by so many modern cosmologists.

Isn’t there a chance that, with the benefit of hindsight, future generations will look back on dark energy in the same way that we now see the phlogiston theory?

Or maybe, as the paper that prompted this piece might be taken to suggest, the dark energy really is something like phlogiston. At least I prefer the name to quintessence. However, I think the author has missed a trick. I think to create a properly trendy cosmological theory he should include the concept of supersymmetry, according to which there should be a Fermionic counterpart of phlogiston called the phlogistino..


R.I.P. Pete Shelley (1955-2018)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Music with tags , , on December 7, 2018 by telescoper

I heard the news late last night of the passing of Pete Shelley, best known as the lead singer of the Buzzcocks. Another iconic figure from my youth has gone. I was never really interested in the 70s punk movement in the UK, but the Buzzcocks managed to combine some of the energy and directness of punk rock with more conventional pop melodies. Above all, though, there was Pete Shelley’s style of delivery, head tilted to one side, a unique mixture of queer camp and unapologetic defiance. That had a big effect on me in my teenage years. In particular, I remember watching watching this performance on Top of the Pops in 1978 (forty years ago, when I was 15) and understanding exactly what the song was about. Ever Fallen In Love only got to number 12 in the charts, but in my memory it was a far bigger hit than that.

Rest in peace, Pete Shelley (1955-2018).

P.S. The answer to the question posed in the song is, of course, `yes’..