Dark Worlds

By Mark Trodden | October 29, 2010 5:39 am

A couple of years or so ago, Jonathan Feng at UC Irvine, George Musser from Scientific American and I began discussions about an article for the magazine. This week, that article finally hit the newsstands in the November Issue.

Back in 2008, Jonathan and I had for quite a while been interested in the connections between particle physics and cosmology, and in particular how experiments at current, upcoming (the LHC at that point) and future colliders could inform and be informed by modern cosmology. In fact, I’d written about these connections a number of times here on the blog, discussing, for example, the nature of WIMP dark matter, and the origin of the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe. And these were the starting point for our interactions with George about a SciAm article.

The journey from these initial musings to a final article was a mostly enjoyable and interesting one, and for me it contrasted greatly with the vast majority of writing that I do, presenting my own current research for journals. In those efforts, the editorial input is generally small. One receives referee reports that are hopefully mostly positive, and can sometimes (although rarely, to be honest) contain excellent suggestions that improve the final version of the paper. The editorial role is mostly in the selection of referees by a scientist serving on the editorial board, and in general grammatical editing of the paper and verification of references as it nears the publication date.

But writing for a magazine is a different experience. From the beginning it was very much a collaborative effort, with Jonathan and I honing our ideas about what should appear in the article, and George pushing some ideas and downplaying others, to fit with his experience of the kind of article that most readers want. We were all searching for the right mix of background material, new directions in the field, and connections to work that Jonathan and I had been directly involved in, and so could comment on from direct experience. Although we didn’t always agree, it was definitely a constructive process, and the final content was a consensus in the best sense of the word, with what to emphasize and what couldn’t make it into the article for space reasons (which are very tight) the outcome of lengthy, but useful negotiations between us and George. That it took a couple of years from inception to publication is partly a reflection of the natural time it takes for a lot of back and forth between editor and authors who have busy day jobs, and partly because in the middle I moved institutions, putting me out of action for a while.

What we ended up focusing on is the intriguing possibility that the dark sector of cosmology might exhibit a considerably richer structure than our usual simple descriptions of a plain WIMP candidate for dark matter, and a cosmological constant, or sequestered dark energy component driving cosmic acceleration. Rather, it is possible that the dark sector contains it’s own set of new particles and forces, and that our detections, gravitationally based so far, have not yet been able to probe this underlying structure. We wrote about interesting possibilities for dark matter, some of which are related to work Jonathan has done, for much of the article, and at the end turned to the possibility of interactions with dark energy, which I’ve worked on and have occasionally written about here. As we concluded the article:

The only matter we know anything about, visible matter, comprises a rich spectrum of particles with multiple interactions determined by beautiful underlying symmetry principles. Nothing suggests that dark matter and dark energy should be any different. We may not encounter dark stars, planets and people, but just as we could hardly imagine the solar system without Neptune, Pluto and the swarm of objects that lie even farther out, one day we might not be able to conceive of a universe without an intricate and fascinating dark world.

The article isn’t perfect, of course. For example, there is a heading for one of the figures that reads “Experiments that claim to have detected dark matter”. We didn’t write that, but we should have caught it in proofs. It is wrong, of course, and should read something like “Experiments that are searching for dark matter”. Also, after being so close to the material for a while, there are some ambiguities that you don’t notice unless someone else reads them a different way and lets you know. But in all, I think Jonathan and I are pretty happy with the final article.

For me, it was an enjoyable experience, with several highlights. First and foremost, we had an engaged and sympathetic editor who understood both the science and the target audience. Thanks George! Second, it is wonderful fun to receive some actual draft page proofs, after months of exchanging a visually unappealing text file, and to see the art work that has been designed to accompany the article. We had some very rough ideas regarding one or two of the figures, but most of the visual parts of the article were created with no initial input from us. We helped tweak at the end, and certainly helped with text in the figures, but the gorgeous graphics were essentially all the magazine’s work. And finally, George never even hinted to us, but when we received copies of the actual magazine a few days before it appeared, we were shocked and delighted to see that our article was the cover article. I can’t tell you how thrilled my mother will be!

Just like the newsstand version, the online version of the article costs money of course. But if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media, Science, Science and the Media
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  • Darius

    “Just like the newsstand version, the online version of the article costs money of course. But if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it.”

    I will not. Paying money for knowledge is just plain idiotic. So people with money can’t have the knowledge? Are you saying that the knowledge should stay with the elite that control our world? Sorry but paying for information and knowledge is a huge peeve of mine especially this day and age. Just recently I tried to get some de-classified ‘free information’ from the UK and they wanted to charge me 3.50 pounds (per document) just to download the bloody thing. You may have written a brilliant and inspiring article… but you are an idiot.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That might be the most awesome comment ever posted on this blog.

  • Brandon Swift

    A hearty “like” for #3 from Sean.

  • http://togroklife.com bornyesterday

    I wonder how he’s accessing the internet.

  • S.G.

    Darius, you’re an ass. And if Sean is serious he is too. If you don’t manufacture a specific product and you’re not in the service industry, you trade in information. What the hell do you do?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Completely serious. Of course, there are many different kinds of “awesome.”

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  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    Shorter Mark: “Hey, read my story! It’s really great !!! But it’s behind a paywall! Ha ha!!!

  • http://garrettlisi.com Garrett

    Hey Mark,
    Congratulations on the Scientific American article! The point, voiced rather caustically, that reading the article requires payment does have some substance, which might be addressed constructively. Scientific American and contributing authors go to a lot of effort, as you described, to produce an excellent magazine, and it is right and good that all be compensated by readers paying directly. But it is also customary for scientists, most of whom are publicly funded, to present their work openly and without charge, as a gift to society. I believe SciAm accommodates this, as in several cases I have seen unabridged and unedited versions of SciAm articles appear on the arxiv, available for free, a few months after they appear in print. This seems like a good solution, worth suggesting to you and your coauthor, both to escape the space constraints on your writing and to appease your voracious and violent horde of blog commenters.

  • http://www.shaky.com Timon of Athens

    “You may have written a brilliant and inspiring article… but you are an idiot.”

    Dear Darius: as I wipe away the tears of laughter, I have to point out that if everyone on the extreme left cut themselves off from all sources of information, then they would have to start making stuff up. Oh, wait, you do that already….

  • http://www.kachingle.com Cynthia Typaldos

    There is another business model besides a paywall — social payments. Yet not a single traditional media company has even experimented with social payments….they are rushing willy-nilly to slap-in-the-face paywalls.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’m truly amazed at much of this discussion. I’ll just make a few points:

    1) Just for the record, authors get paid a trivial amount for an article in Scientific American – just a small honorarium. The money goes into, among other things, paying for the wonderful artwork and editorial help we got. And I think that should be paid for. No scientist would ever write an article like this for the money.

    2) This is not a research paper reporting on the results of my publicly-funded research. Any one of you can go and read those for free. for example, some relevant to the SciAm article are



    I don’t hear complaints when people write popular books about science, and this is like a very small version of that.

    3) You may not have noticed, but I, and others on this site, actually do an awful lot of free public science education. this includes some of the posts written here, public lectures, science cafes, panel discussions and speaking at schools. It is also worth pointing out that we do not need to do anything like this amount of work, and, without criticizing them, note that most scientists do none of it. I’m not looking for a pat on the back – merely to balance some of the nonsense above.

    4) As far as reaching an audience, I don’t have much to say about the eventual structure of the distribution of knowledge in society, but one thing is entirely clear. The way things run today, this one article is likely to reach many more people who are interested in science than anything I could post for free anywhere. Most certainly it will reach some new people who have not read other things I have done. And at the end of the day, by the way, this is why people write for Scientific American. The idea that one should feel bad about this is, frankly, ridiculous.

  • TimG

    So I’m guessing Darius has never bought a book before. Or, say, gone to college. After all, “paying for knowledge is idiotic.”

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  • Marcel Kincaid

    “I will not. Paying money for knowledge is just plain idiotic. ”

    That may explain why you have so little.

  • Anders

    I made a comment suggesting that dark matter might interact with itself and other forms of invisible matter and create its own worlds on peter woits blog. it got deleted because it was off topic and probably not serious enough for Peter. I guess he should have paid more attention to the brilliance in his comment section and not be so prudent!! Some questions for future conteplation: Could there be endless parallel dark universes that are all dark in relation to each other? How do we explain the existance of our own specific consciousnesses in face of the impossibly small probability for them to have appeared at all? Is the baby universe theory the answer to this problem?

  • Anders

    always uh..thinking.

  • http://www.pablocontursi.com.ar p c

    I think this is going out of control.
    There must be a filter to the comments…


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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