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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

And here I thought it was just me.

Folks who keep an eye on science news have probably heard about the supposed new phenomenon of dark flow. For those who haven't heard, there's a nice article about the subject from National Geographic:

On the outskirts of creation, unknown, unseen "structures" are tugging on our universe like cosmic magnets, a controversial new study says.

Everything in the known universe is said to be racing toward the massive clumps of matter at more than 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) an hour—a movement the researchers have dubbed dark flow.

The presence of the extra-universal matter suggests that our universe is part of something bigger—a multiverse—and that whatever is out there is very different from the universe we know, according to study leader Alexander Kashlinsky, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The theory could rewrite the laws of physics. Current models say the known, or visible, universe—which extends as far as light could have traveled since the big bang—is essentially the same as the rest of space-time (the three dimensions of space plus time).

Now, this is a big deal. We're talking about an effect that is occurring on a massive scale, dragging objects of literally astronomical size in particular directions. If such a finding turns out to be correct, we will have to revise our models of the birth, and nature, of the universe considerably. Or, then again, maybe not, because one possible explanation is compatible with ideas we're already working on:

To explain the unexplainable flow, the team turned to the longstanding theory that rapid inflation just after the big bang had pushed chunks of matter beyond the known universe.

The extra-universal matter's extreme mass means it "could still pull—tug on—the matter in our universe, causing this flow of galaxies across our observable horizon," said Kashlinsky, whose team's study appeared in the October 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

So, in other words, early in the lifetime of the universe spacetime itself may have expanded at superluminal speeds, spreading matter apart such that the light cones from different regions of the early universe do not- yet- intersect. Yet, if true, this implies that either gravity itself propagates faster than the speed of light or, alternatively, that the galaxy clusters affected by dark flow have passed within the light cone of the distant material while we have not. Either way, we're looking to find out some interesting things about our world.

Unless, of course, xkcd has it right, in which case the answer isn't interesting so much as cliche:

That's what she said...

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