Linda Downing

Why the fascination with dark matter?

Countless man hours logged by the world's greatest scientists, an obscene amount of money spent, results published on that spooky spiritual day known as Halloween - and all to no avail: That elusive substance, "dark matter," slipped away undetected again. According to these experts, dark matter has mass but cannot be seen. What fuels its pursuit? This recent hunt, described as a "sensitive search," took place in an abandoned, South Dakota gold mine a mile underground. A dark-matter detector on the International Space Station has also turned up no concrete evidence. These knights seeking physics' Holy Grail are literally looking high and low for this useful/useless, knowable/unknowable stuff. April Orcutt, writing for November's National Geographic Traveler, described her attitude over what appeared to be a fruitless quest: "No matter. I'm in good spirits, an ardent believer in a detour's promise of discovery." Detours often challenge what we think we know. An August report by the National Academy of Sciences reversed what researchers believed about Neanderthals, described as "modern man's distant cousins." Based on four fragments of bone - identified as tools - found in a cave in southwestern France, Neanderthals' abilities have been upgraded. More to the point is that researchers admit to an "evolving understanding" and "there is much we don't know."
We are always looking, finding and stretching to interpret our results. Not long ago, we numbered the planets. An early November report says there are more Earth-like planets than there are people on Earth. That fuels our ongoing question: "Is there other life out there?" Things are not always as they seem. A visitor to Rjukan, Norway this month might think he is standing in direct sunlight. In fact, the town, shrouded in shadow much of the year, has just installed computer-controlled mirrors on the mountain above it to reflect the sun's rays down upon its citizens. Warren Buffet, the billionaire investment guru, is giving away most of his wealth before he dies. He knows he cannot take it with him. What he doesn't know is where he is going. For him, eternal destiny is dark matter. Buffet is an agnostic, someone who by definition denies God's existence is provable and believes it is impossible to know whether or not God exists. Atheists do not even relegate God to dark matter. For them, there is no god. We might be surprised then at a recent headline: "Atheist 'mega-churches' take root in U.S." The Associated Press reports that hundreds gather, enjoy rousing music, inspirational sermons, readings and quiet reflection. Michael Luciano, former Catholic turned atheist, says that building something based on what you don't believe "sounds like an offence against sensibility." The irony of pursuing dark matter is that it requires light. A biblical passage describes it as "ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). We are fascinated with dark matter because we yearn for the God of Light. The German writer Goethe said: "I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity." Finding dark matter will only benefit us to the extent it reveals the True Light. Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together-side-by-side. Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at