In the Dark

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

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Photograph by ESA/Hubble & NASA

“We learn the deepest things in unknown territory. Often it is when we feel most confused inwardly and are in the midst of our greatest difficulties that something new will open. We awaken most easily to the mystery of life through our weakest side.”—Jack Kornfield

Have you ever looked at a photograph of space and wondered exactly what you are looking at? According to NASA, roughly 68 percent of the universe is dark energy and 27 percent is dark matter. The remaining five percent is all of the phenomena of matter we have observed, that makes up life on Earth. As for what dark energy and dark matter are exactly, the short answer is that we have no idea.

 

Dark matter and dark energy are essentially names given to explain phenomena that astronomers currently cannot. The first is that, if you spin anything at a speed fast enough for its centrifugal force to exceed the forces holding it together, its parts fly off in every direction—but at the speed galaxies rotate, there is not enough visible matter to be preventing that from happening. This suggests that there is invisible matter holding everything together: dark matter.

 

The second is that, based on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the expansion of the universe should be slowing down due to gravity. But in 1998, the Hubble Space Telescope observed faraway supernovae that revealed the opposite: the universe used to be expanding more slowly than it is today. Something is accelerating its expansion, what astronomers call dark energy.

 

Scientists have been attempting to solve these mysteries for decades, if not longer. Some have said that Einstein’s theory of relativity needs to be reworked, while others have argued that cannot be the case, considering it accurately explains so much. A study published last month in The European Physical Journal C has even proposed a fifth dimension that warps dark matter, serving as a portal between the seen and unseen. Some of the greatest scientific minds in history, all trying to answer the question: How do you prove that which cannot be detected?

 

This question is one that mystics have long mulled over, as well. In spiritual traditions, the seen and unseen are coded as light and dark. (Science does this, too; after all, dark matter and energy are not actually dark, they are just called that because they are undetectable.) In Western religions, these forces are often attached to morality: good and evil. It is no mystery then, why so many of us were instilled with an unshakable fear of the unknown—which is regrettable, considering it accounts for 95 percent of our universe.

 

Dark matter holds everything together. Dark energy expands our universe. And yet we demonize the darkness, which is just another word for that which we do not understand. We cling to the light, but what is already known cannot, by definition, teach us anything new. As Jack Kornfield says, it is the time we spend in the unknown that we learn the most. Like our universe, it is in the dark that we grow and learn how to hold ourselves together.

 

I could write to you of how we are coming up on a year spent in the dark, a year in which the uncertainty has been ever-present, a year of searching for answers, of incalculable loss and learning. But the truth is, we’ve always been in it. We always are. Try as we might to understand our unknowable universe, some mysteries cannot be solved. Perhaps someday we will find solace in the secrets swimming all around us—the space between stars.

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