The standard models that physics uses to explain the cosmos have some unresolved issues. If we consider only ordinary matter, for example, galaxies are not heavy enough to prevent them from spinning apart, given how fast they rotate. There is simply not enough matter-based gravity to hold them together. This problem with galaxies is one reason scientists suggest that about 85 percent of our universe is composed of “dark matter,” which is not like ordinary matter but provides the extra gravity to hold galaxies together. There are several theories about what makes up dark matter, but one is that it consists of a vast number of very tiny particles (much smaller than an electron) called axions.
When we consider things at the atomic scale, because of inconsistencies in formulas for the standard quantum model, researchers in the 1970s postulated the existence of this microscopic axion. Adding the axion to the standard model corrects multiple inconsistencies. In exploring the consequences of the axion for quantum physics, theoreticians realized it could also explain dark matter.
Because of the usefulness of this theoretical particle, several experiments have been devised to look for evidence it exists. These experiments have not, to date, found the axion, but they have determined limits to how big it could be, and it appears to be very small indeed (which paradoxically requires more powerful experiments to find it). The current experiments are now being upgraded. Scientists hope that by 2024 we will have either direct evidence for axions or evidence that their existence is more or less likely.
We Still Look to the Stars
Currently exciting is the idea that some stars might provide evidence for axions. Neutron stars are incredibly dense at the end of their life cycle, when gravity has collapsed the remaining matter into a tiny mass. This collapse also generates high energies, so these stars could be a source of axions. In the center of a neutron star, it is hypothesized, axions would generate X-rays we could measure. In a group of neutron stars in our galaxy, known as the Magnificent Seven, scientists have found X-rays, strongly suggestive of the existence of axions. More work needs to be done to confirm these initial findings, as alternative explanations for these X-rays need to be ruled out. The possibility of both earth-bound and star-bound experiments coming together to prove the existence of axions has scientists scrambling and planning more experiments to see if these particles exist, thereby strengthening our understanding of quantum physics and solving the mystery of dark matter.
Over 2,000 years ago, the scientists of the time, the wise men, found evidence in the stars of a very small event (the birth of a baby) that they determined would change all our destinies. They followed the evidence and were led to the baby Jesus and worshiped him, bringing gifts. While much has changed in the intervening period, scientists are still looking to the stars to understand our Lord’s creation better. And now it seems like studying the stars may provide evidence for the tiniest particle, the axion, which might explain the missing 85 percent of the mass in the universe.
Scientific discovery highlights that, while complex, God’s creation is open to our understanding and exploration as God’s image-bearers. Further, the things scientists discover (like the small COVID vaccine) are blessings we should respect and for which we can thank God. We should not be like Herod, who tried to destroy the blessing that the wise men came to worship. In this age, when science is under attack by individuals and groups spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories, we need to recognize that God permits nonbelieving scientists to uncover truths of his creation, just like 2,000 years ago, when he led the wise men to discover the gift of his Son, our Lord.
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