Lisa Randall: Dark Matter

Lisa Randall is professor of physics at Harvard and author of the just released Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Randall also just penned an essay in the Boston Globe “Seeing dark matter as the key to the universe — and human empathy.” I thought it one of the best I’ve read this year. She begins the essay:

I liken dark matter — matter present throughout the universe that is invisible to us because it doesn’t emit or absorb light — to other entities that remain unnoticed but influence the workings of the world, from the bacterial cells in our bodies, which outnumber human cells by a factor of ten, to the myriad Internet communities and subcultures that thrive outside our awareness. The goal was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality.

She extends her metaphor by pointing to other things that are transparent to us, “people, phenomena, particles, and forces that we don’t necessarily appreciate but that are important to our shared reality.” In the scientific realm, these blindspots are relatively obvious. For example, we don’t see or understand the rules of quantum mechanics which are counter-intuitive and esoteric. And dark matter is like this too, even though it is,

the dominant form of matter in the universe … people tend to perceive it as irrelevant or even dangerous … Dark matter’s existence perplexes people who find it implausible that the vast majority of matter in the universe would be undetectable by our senses and their technological extensions. Some even wonder if it’s a sort of mistake. To me it would be even more astonishing if the matter we can see with our eyes were all the matter there is.

Now if we turn the metaphor toward racial or class differences we see that,

Most people mistake their own perspective, shaped by their subjective and limited perception, for the absolute reality of the external world. Questioning this assumption is what advanced our research on dark matter. It is also the only thing that has ever advanced human empathy.

Empathy is important to help us understand things we can’t see or experience. If we recognize”the limitations of our senses and the subjectivity of our experiences” then we might be able to transcend them.  Yes, we necessarily see the world from our own point of view, but we should remember that ours is only one way to see the world so we should be empathic.

Empathy is difficult. It is also crucial to the progress of both science and society. It demands that we make a deliberate and consistent effort to step out of our familiar frames of reference. Only then can we synthesize different perspectives, observations, and experiences — the very act at the heart of creativity, which will be essential to solving the increasingly complex problems that beset our world.

There is dark matter and energy around us that we don’t see; there is light and sound that we don’t see or hear. Our thoughts are but grains of sand in a universal ocean. We should be humble about them and empathic toward others.

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