On a recent visit to Beijing I picked up a copy of the China Daily, the national English Language newspaper. The December 18 issue carried a front-page headline story about a recent Chinese satellite launch. Then everything went dark…
Making Sense of the Universe
We have explored a few topics relating to radiometry during our run with Reality here. Radiometry is the science of sensing EM energy at various frequencies to uncover clues about the structure of the universe. The foundation of radiometric techniques hearkens back to the essentials of black body radiation wherein one can infer the energy from a thing by measuring its temperature. The temperature is, really, a profile of the spectra of energy. By looking at the energies at various wavelengths, smart people using data analysis can see otherwise non-visible structures.
If you think about it, your eyeballs are radiometers, tuned to a certain bandwidth of EM energy in the visible spectrum, splashing the thalamus and giving input to the brain, which then does the heavy lifting of making sense of the two dimensional data carried along the optic nerve.
Radiometry, also referred to as remote sensing, is pretty cool and over the years we’ve been fortunate to have worn our EMC beanies around a few radiometer projects. [1, 2] (Raised during the Apollo era, I dig space projects in general.) WindSat looked down at the planet and inferred wind vectors from the jumble of radiation above Earth’s oceans. COBE looked deeply into space to peek into the low temperature boil left over from the Big Bang.
Now, some 14 Billion years after our Universe ignited, exploration continues into the fundamental structures of what’s out there as it helps to explain what is in there as well. That is, at the core of the makeup of matter. They’re quite coupled. The structures lying at the smallest edges of observable matter are related to what is happening at the furthest observable edge of the universe. A complete cosmology describes the continuum of quantum mechanics from small to infinite. Proving theories, however, requires data. Gathering this data requires really cool gadgets operating at the limits of our technology.
A related area of sensing is focused on the probing for the existence of ominously sounding dark matter, the existence of which was first postulated in the 1930s. Observations of distant galaxies indicated that the rate of expansion of the universe is more than a little off. Galaxies were found to be moving 10 to 100 times faster than calculated. The velocities of these splotches of stars were calculated based on their apparent mass (don’t ask me how to weigh a galaxy). The best explanation was some mysterious dark matter was generating (a lot) more gravity. What was once posited to be vast tracts of empty space is, in fact, filled with something. Hence the dark adjective. Something is acting on the galaxies but no one can see it. This dark stuff permeates everything and everywhere.
As part of its Strategic Priority Program on Space Science, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has developed a satellite to poke into the nature of dark matter, which behaves like some kind of cosmic Cheshire Cat. Some theorize that 95% of the universe has been heretofore unobservable (a combination of dark matter and its cosmological cousin dark energy).  Scientists in several countries have been designing sensing systems to grab a whiff of dark matter which is difficult to detect because it “seldom interacts with anything, except to generate gravity.” It doesn’t bump into regular so-called baryonic matter, which is composed of ordinary protons and neutrons (and the rest of those quarks, hadrons and leptons, etc. You know, normal sub-atomic particles).
The Quixotic journey to study the real dark side of the universe has been long at it, as far back as the 1990s. The search for this Holy Grail is international.
China Steps It Up
To take a long hard look at/for dark matter, a Long March 2-D rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch center and lofted the 1.9 metric ton platform into a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit.  The mission is planned for three years and is composed of the largest dark matter sensor or data receiver ever deployed, according to the newspaper and “is about four times the size of NASA’s Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter” that was deployed by balloon above Antarctica between 2000 and 2003.
The China Daily piece also notes that “On August 19, Japan launched a dark matter probe named CALET.” Adding, a bit smugly it seems, that CALET’s “data receiver is also smaller than the Chinese Satellite’s.” Ooh.
China’s ambitions are clear: “We are close to the edge of dark matter and we are eager to make sure it is the Chinese people who give the answer to this cutting edge scientific question.” Ji Xiangdong, professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong. Adding to this sentiment is Chang Jin, deputy director of the CAS Purple Mountain Observatory. “We hope to be the first team in the world to find dark matter.”
Theories on chalkboards less than 100 years ago, Black holes and event horizons are now the subjects of everyday science fiction in blockbuster movies shown all over terra firma. It has firmly crossed over into popular culture.
Enter Luke and Crew
Curiously, the article ran on the same page that featured the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, noting that a few fans “flew half-way around the world to see the film in Paris two days ahead of its release in the United States.” One fifty-five year old Swedish lady fan noted that “I was happy to see Luke Skywalker alive again.” [thank God!] “I’ve lived with the character Han Solo since I was 17. I even have a Hans Solo license plate!” French fan S. Guillemot put it this way: the Lucas franchise is “working its magic again.”
(Now I can’t say that there are as many EMC engineers that are as passionate about slaying the devilish crosstalk as this lady is about the Millennium Falcon’s swaggering pilot, but I’ll bet a few readers of this publication have “EMC” on their license plates.)
Apparently, Episode 7 of the Lucas epic grossed $258M in its first weekend of release. This is mind-blowing support for a fantasy franchise that has captured peoples’ imaginations for the past forty years, what with its fanciful plot, fetching females and fuzzy physics.
It’s just a wee bit amusing that the public will pour hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to be assured that Chewbacca still has Han’s back. This, while science-agnostic politicians squeeze science budgets for searching for answers to real questions. It would be really cool if some of the caché of Big Science Fiction Entertainment would find its way into genuine space exploration. Ah well. That’s about as likely as finding dark matter with a flashlight.
While it might not get the same turnout as the Dark Side, stay tuned for the next episode of Dark Matters, perhaps playing on Chinese computers in the near future.
- In Compliance Magazine. “Reality Engineering: Millibels in the Wind.” June 2014.
- In Compliance Magazine. “Reality Engineering: Present at the Creation.” November 2015
- Scientific American. “Physics at the Limits.” Volume 24, Number 4, Winter 2015.
- China Daily. December 18, 2015.
He’ll see The Force Awakens when all the hullabaloo dies down.