Daytime TV: Darkness into light

Gary Day gets to grips with the Standard Model of the Universe, which explains everything - or does it?

March 18, 2010

The Standard Model, which explains pretty much everything from the Big Bang to now, is in trouble (Horizon: Is Everything We Know about the Universe Wrong? BBC Two, Tuesday 9 March, 9pm). Scientists are out to get it. Particularly Dr Kathy Romer of the University of Sussex. She would be delighted to demolish it. There was an unholy gleam in her eye at the thought.

Samuel West narrated, his neutral tone contrasting nicely with the cosmic drama. Fire bursting out of darkness, gas clouds millions of miles wide drifting through the black of space, galaxies spinning like discuses endlessly whirling through the void. It was breathtaking stuff.

The story goes like this. In the beginning, there was nothing. And then there was, flash, a great leap of light. Here is where the Standard Model runs into its first problem. If the Universe exploded into life, then the temperature should vary across the sky, but it doesn't. Everywhere you look, it's the same. For a moment, the Standard Model tottered, but Alan Guth's theory of inflation saved it from falling.

A billionth of a second after the first rip in the darkness, or possibly even earlier, the Universe expanded a quadrillion times. The process was illustrated by a red rubber bag that suddenly swelled into the shape of Angelina Jolie's lips. Inflation, which has such a bad press in the economics pages, is an absolute necessity in the equations for the Standard Model. It ensures that the cosmos is isotropic. The heat is pretty much the same throughout, except in Peter Mandelson's heart, where it is a little colder.

The second problem is that the Standard Model doesn't explain why stars at the edge of galaxies are moving just as fast as those at the centre. Such a phenomenon ought to be impossible. The outer stars should be flung into oblivion. What is holding them in place? Dark matter. But since it neither emits nor reflects light, it is totally invisible. We can postulate its existence, but can't prove it's there.

This doesn't deter Dan Bauer. He lives deep underground among equipment that is designed to detect any dark matter that happens to be passing. It was only later that Dan realised that, since dark matter passes straight through ordinary matter, his instruments may not be able to detect it. Well, we've all made mistakes. So Dan tried a new tactic to draw this mysterious substance out into the open; posing as a spermatozoon for a documentary on conception. Either that or the white suit he was wearing was for his own safety. Subsequent events would seem to favour the first interpretation as there was a eureka moment. A little jump of a needle as dark matter took a tentative peep at Dan in his costume.

Kathy gnashed her teeth. Once again the Standard Model seemed to have survived. Far from disturbing its equilibrium, dark matter had only underpinned it. The saboteurs put their faith in problem number three. The Universe, instead of slowing down, is speeding up. A telescope opened its petals and gazed unblinkingly at infinity. Yes, there's no doubt about it. The cosmos is gathering momentum. And the cause? Dark energy. At this point I have to confess to being a bit in the dark myself.

Despite helpful images of men in overalls pouring tar on to concrete and then standing back to watch it ooze in all directions, I didn't quite get how "the energy of nothing creates more and more empty space filled with yet more nothingness". The only thing that came to mind was government education policy. Once more the Standard Model emerged unscathed.

It looked as if the game was up for Kathy and her bunch of desperadoes. They were cornered and out of ammunition. But then they were joined by Sasha Kashlinsky of Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center. He has been examining the cosmic microwave background and discovered that the Universe is not only moving faster but is also disappearing down a big hole. I don't know; if there's not one thing to worry about, there's another. And this is known as dark flow. So much darkness. No wonder history is the way it is.

Apparently, this dark flow entails the existence of multiple universes. These seem like a good idea because they enable us to get everything done, eventually. And these universes, it turns out, are predicted by inflation, so once again the Standard Model is secure. Even though it may be completely wrong. Kathy lives to fight another day.

In Jobless (BBC One, Tuesday 9 March, 10.35pm), nine-year-old Leah said it didn't matter if her mum and dad, both victims of the recession, didn't have much money, because she still had school and could play with her friends. If only it were that simple.

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