[Copyright 1989 by Robert J. Nemiroff]

What's the Matter with the Universe?

Adventures with Randy Data

As I walked through headquarters toward my office, the phones rang and the secretaries called out to me.

"Randy, Princeton's on line 5. They want to know the origin of large scale structure in the universe."

"Put them on hold." I said.

"Randy, Penn's on line 12 - 'Why do we get so few neutrinos from the sun?'"

"Tell them I'm busy."

"Randy, Caltech, line 637 -"

I closed the door as I entered my office. Not an unusual start to the day.

My mail was more of the same. It isn't easy being Chief Inspector of the Metropolis Police Astronomical Investigation Unit: you solve a few cases and people begin to think you know something. I filed the mail in the trash and took to more immediate problems: patching the holes in my bullet-proof vest and trying to get my health insurance reinstated. But while cleaning my teeth with a rusty stapler I noticed I wasn't alone.

Already in my office was the most breathtaking beauty this side of Betelgeuse. And she was visibly shaken. Little did I know this dame was about to unload on me the biggest astronomical mystery of modern times.

"What's the matter, sweetheart?" I asked.

She appeared shocked at my question. "That's the problem!" she answered.

"What's the problem?"

"That's the matter."

So that was it. 'Matter,' the all-inclusive name scientists give for heavy stuff. The basic building blocks of the universe. It turns out that nobody even knows what form it takes. It had scandal written all over it. We pay astronomers to tell us about the universe and they can't even tell us what it's made out of.

She said her name was Stella and that she was on assignment for some Magazine. The composition of the universe: she felt that her readers had a right to know. Her magazine would pay a pretty penny to find out - if they got the exclusive when I cracked the case. I should have thrown her out right then, but just looking at her I could tell this was a matter I wanted to know better.

I put out a feeler for the word on the street and wasn't surprised when 'Lunch Napkin' Larry's name came up once too often. I decided to pay Larry a little unexpected visit.

Napkins littered his favorite diner on Delancy, just as his reputation suggested. Each had little equations written on them. I could tell right off that things were bad: many equations had been set to zero unjustifiably. What wasn't covered with equations had graphs. And what was worse, none of the axes were labelled. Everything in the place that would sit still long enough was covered with these scribblings. I was glad I hadn't worn a white tie.

In a dirty booth near the back was Larry, surrounded by faces I've seen at half a dozen Astronomical Society meetings. He and his boys were debating the output of a standard hand calculator. The kind you could get on any street corner.

"It moves funny. Something fishy is up." Larry told his gang. I could tell he was up to something devious.

"What moves funny?" They were startled by my presence.

"Data! Why nothing, Randy. Nothing." He stuffed the napkin he was writing on under his Pastrami, hoping I wouldn't notice, and stood up. "Sure is a nice sun-shinny day, right boys?" The boys nodded convincingly in agreement.

"What, punk?" was the only response I could think of. Suddenly his legs weren't long enough to reach the ground.

"Stars. Galaxies." He decided to come clean. "They move like they're hiding something. Some people call it 'missing mass' 'cause it looks like something's missing, but we call it 'dark matter' because we think there's just lots of dark stuff -it's the same either way. No matter how you look at it, Randy, there's more there than meets the eye."

"Give me an analogy." I demanded, tightening my grip.

"Yeah, yeah, sure, Randy, just take it easy. The dark matter. it's like, uh, ... roaches. You don't really see that many of them, especially during the day, but for each one you see you can be sure there are plenty more."

"So that's it." I said. "Most of the universe is made of cockroaches." He didn't think I'd catch on so fast - it must have confused him.

"No. Stars, Randy. Get it? What else can it be? Stars we don't see. Stars that are dimmer than the rest. Lots of them. That's what the universe must be really made out of - mostly dim stars. Their combined gravity changes the way the bright stars move. Since all we see are the bright stars, they appear to move funny. Right boys?" They all nodded convincingly in agreement.

"There's no other theory that fits the data?"

"What other theory could their be, Randy?"

"Not even one by ... 'Fast Calc' Eddy?" I played a hunch. Suddenly they all were worried.

"Maybe, Randy, but he's crazy. Nobody can understand what he says. With his theories you could explain {\it anything}."

"Sure," I said. "Does this person mean anything to you?" I showed him a picture of Stella.

"Yes. Of course. She was my first love." He eyes got watery and his voice cracked. He motioned toward all the napkins "she's the reason for all this."

So it was just beginning to make sense: cockroaches. Maybe the universe was filled with them. Maybe part of the missing mass was in Roach Motels.

Stella confessed she knew all about Larry and his affinity for lunch napkins. She told me horror stories about how they couldn't keep the place stocked with napkins because Larry would write on them all. She convinced the management to send him a bill but that too got covered with equations - which he conveniently set to zero so he didn't have to pay. I told her that when I squeezed Larry he said the missing mass was in dim stars - stars nobody has ever seen before. She had no immediate response but she had a mysterious twinkle in her eye.

It was time to confront the actual witnesses: the observational astronomers. 'Mirror' Mary couldn't be reached during the day - her office gave the lame excuse that she was "sleeping." I caught up to her just before sundown while she was packing up some of her stuff. Apparently she was hoping to get out of town. I took her statement:

"Yeah, I was at the telescope when the data came in. No, I didn't see any of this 'dark matter' the theorists are talking about. If you ask me most of it doesn't really exist. It's all a cover-up. They have this theory that the mass in the universe has to be exactly the same amount needed to stop it from expanding forever. Sounds like philosophy to me. Fast Calc Eddy? He's really a physicist. Lunch Napkin Larry? A theorist - he wouldn't know a real photon if it hit him in the eye. Read my lips: there is no dark matter."

"Is this your daughter?" I showed her the picture.

"Yes. We were last together the nights the data were taken. No, I haven't seen her since."

It turned out Fast Calc Eddy was expecting me. And just as I thought, he was wired. He was logged into more computers than was legal in six states.

"The dark matter?" Eddy volunteered. "Yeah, it's there. And what's more, I'll tell you what it's made out of. It's not stars, it's elementary particles. " This was too easy. "Little bitty things like electrons, but these things are weirder. Like axions."

"Laundry detergent?" This I could understand.

"No. These particles are predicted by my theories." Eddy said and gave me a toothy smile. "The laws of physics wouldn't be symmetric without them. The dark matter could be just zillions of 'hot' elementary particles. 'hot' because they move so fast. Or zillions of 'cold' particles: 'Cold' because they move so slow. Or even 'warm' particles. The amazing thing is that they could be everywhere and we just wouldn't see them."

"Hot, warm, and cold, like laundry detergent?" He didn't think I'd catch on so fast - it must have confused him.

"No. Well in a way but ..."

"How do I know this isn't all a white wash?" I asked.

"Take this room. What are the objects you see? The light bulbs on the ceiling? This chair? My autographed 'Slim Whitman' tidily-winks set? The observational astronomers would tell you that the most massive thing in this room are the lights - because they're the brightest. And the least massive is the air - because it's invisible. But actually it's the other way around. But by watching things move, like paper airplanes fly, you can guess the existence of the air. It's the same thing with the mass of the universe."

"Does the name Stella Balila mean anything to you?"

"Sure. We studied physics together in school. Much of what I know about astrophysics I learned from her."

"Ok. You're clean for now. But don't leave the galaxy unexpectedly."

Was Fast Calc Eddy just talking in circles? Was Mirror Mary's opinion just a reflection of her own theoretical prejudice? Is Larry permanently "out to lunch?" And just how bright is Stella? I called all the players into one room.

"You. You're the dark matter." I said, pointing to Lunch Napkin Larry. The scientists were stunned. They all knew he had a big head, but this they did not expect. "And you," I said pointing to Fast Calc Eddy, "and you," pointing to Mirror Mary. "In fact you're all dark matter. And so is everybody you know. And the earth. And the moon." They sat in stunned silence.

"The point is that you're all much dimmer than bright stars like the sun, so you contribute much more mass to the universe than light. You're the dark matter."

They all left, except for Stella. "That's not the whole story, is it?" she asked me. Suddenly I was looking down the business end of snub-nosed 45. "You can't account for all the dark matter like that. It's deeper yet isn't it, Randy? Everywhere I've been I found that you were there first. All the astronomers knew you already, didn't they? Your mark was in every result, every paper. Every time they got close to the answer, you threw them off, didn't you? So you tell me now, Randy. What's the matter with the universe?"

She was finally on to me. She should have known long ago. "You can't kill me with a gun, Stella. It's just not that easy." She finally began to understand. The twinkle in her eyes faded, she lowered her gun. I felt I owed her a more thorough explanation. "It was and still is my job to add my mark to all data. It goes deeper than astronomy, sweetheart, so don't take it personally. Everything in the universe is affected. Heisenberg was the first to realize that it was impossible to get rid of me. Sometimes it looks like I know the answers. But even though I've been everywhere, I really don't know anything. I was exactly the wrong one to ask, Stella. It is theoretically impossible for me to solve this case. That's the matter with the universe." A tear came to her eye.

I winked at her and quipped, "here's looking at you, kid." She smiled weakly and whispered "of course" before she left. I think she believed she understood, but she could have been wrong. Nobody should ever take Random Data seriously.

by Robert J. Nemiroff