What Do We Know About All that Empty Space in Outer Space?
This will definitely take more than one newsletter
Okay, so I know I keep bringing it up, but pieces of that book I read a while back, The Boy Who Saw True, remain with me. I shared a couple of quotes before, and now I’ll share another one that inspired today’s topic. To set the scene, the Boy is clairvoyant, and he’s visited by the soul of a dead scientist who is sharing regrets about his human assumptions regarding how the Universe works.
“Permit me now to say a few words about space. You look up into the firmment and you think it consists of empty spce dotted with stars. That is an illusion due to the limitations of your five senses. There is no such thing as empty space; it only appears empty, because of the rarity of its matter at the rapidity of its vibrations. p. 175
Isn’t it funny how sometimes you read something that changes your perspective? Well, this quote and its following two pages, changed my thoughts when looking at the night sky.
We know a monumental amount about outer space, yet we also know that what we’ve discovered is only a drop in the bucket. For as technologically advanced as we are, there are plenty of limitations to our exploration. Despite everything we’ve learned, there’s still a lot of “empty” space out there. I’m talking about black holes, antimatter, dark matter, and dark energy. What do we know about any of it?
(For the sake of time and space, I’ll tell you what I learned about black holes and antimatter. I’ll wait to talk about dark matter and dark energy until Monday in Curious Life because otherwise, we’ll be here all day.)
The first thing I think of when considering the seemingly nothingness in space is black holes. Sure they may not appear to take up as much space as planets, stars, and everything else made of matter, but they do consume quite a bit.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted the existence of black holes. Since then, while scientists can’t technically see a black hole, they can see its effects. According to NASA, a black hole is “anything but empty space.”
We can’t see a black hole, but we know they have a gravitational field strong enough that nothing, including light, can escape it. Black holes appear to suck in massive amounts of matter — like a Sun ten times larger than ours — into what we believe is a singular tiny area.
We believe black holes are caused by the death of a star, and it’s thought that black holes contain a spacetime singularity—a breakdown or tear of spacetime— at their core. Scientists don’t know enough about singularities to fully understand them. But I’m curious what they’re made of. My first guesses are either antimatter or dark matter, but apparently, neither is the case.
However, as recently as 2019, researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa built on a theory first introduced in 1966 by physicist Erast Gliner. Their paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, but they claim interstellar collapses form Generic Objects of Dark Energy ( GEODE) instead of “true” black holes. The difference? Well, it seems the only difference I can find is that “true” black holes contain that mystery singularity at its center, whereas dark matter doesn’t. Turns out we still aren’t sure what black holes are made of.
Antimatter is as it sounds—the opposite of matter. British physicist Paul Dirac first predicted the existence of antimatter in 1928. Then a few years later, in 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered it.
Simply put, every subatomic particle we know of has an antimatter equivalent. For example, atoms—the building blocks of all matter—are composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. An anti-atom has a positron, anti-proton, and anti-neutron. The atom and anti-atom are identical in every way except for their electric charge.
As you might expect, when matter and antimatter mix, things don’t go well. Wait, no. That’s an understatement. It’s more like they annihilate each other in a spectacular burst of energy. While impressive, this conflict is no threat to us. Well, as long as it stays on a subatomic scale.
Let me put it this way.
If you were to mix a gram of matter—the weight of a paperclip—with a gram of antimatter, it would cause an explosion comparable to Hiroshima.
Now you understand my curiosity as to if black holes are made of antimatter. Seems a logical assumption given that all matter appears to cease to exist once coming into contact with a black hole. But apparently, black holes don’t just suck in matter. They also absorb energy, which means theoretically, a black hole would just absorb antimatter the same way it swallows anything else.
We know antimatter exists. We haven’t figured out why there is so much more matter than antimatter since, theoretically, there should be an equal amount of each. Further, given the reaction when the two combine, how do we exist at all? Actually, I wrote about this very thing in my Curious Life newsletter back in August — right after writing to you in Curious Adventure about quantum physics.
Did you know it’s believed all the matter in the known universe only accounts for about 5 percent of our universe? There’s even less antimatter. No wonder it looks so vast and empty. But guess what? It’s not.
About 27 percent of the universe is dark matter, and the remaining 68 percent is thought to be dark energy. Meaning 95 percent of our known universe isn’t actually empty, we just don’t understand it.
Now you see why I’m waiting until Monday to travel down that rabbit hole. Even still, it’s enough to make us rethink what’s out there. So far, we’ve been using technology to measure light and waves, but what else might be out there that’s beyond the reach of our five senses?
The quote I mentioned at the beginning goes on to say,
“…just as in the province of machinery, there are wheels within wheels, so in the Cosmos there are worlds within worlds.”
True or not, it’s fun to think about. Don’t you think?
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