“When I was your age, the universe was a lot simpler.” So said Dr. Donald Schneider, professor of astronomy at Penn State, referring to the mind-bending discoveries in recent years about what physicists call dark matter and dark energy, difficult-to-observe “stuff that actually dominates the structure and behavior of universe.” (See Joseph Gyekis, “Probing Questions: What Is Dark Energy and How Do We Know It Exists?,” ResearchPennState, March 23, 2005, available at http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/darkenergy.html. Also see Wikipedia’s article on Dark Matter and Dark Energy.)
The strange entity known today as “dark energy,” whatever it is, makes up 73% of the matter-energy of the universe. This energy form is something like anti-gravity, causing the universe to expand at an ever increasing rate, overwhelming the gravitational brakes of the cosmos. This mysterious substance is “dark” because it is so difficult to detect. Apparently distributed uniformly across space, the amount of it in the space occupied by the earth would be equivalent to about 10 milligrams of matter–essentially impossible to detect on a terrestrial scale. (University of Cambridge Office of Communications, “Cambridge Astronomers Honoured for Dark Energy Discovery,” Sept. 6, 2007, http://news.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/2007/09/06/cambridgeastronomershonouredfordarkenergydiscovery/.) Only by observing the outer limits of the universe were scientists, such as teams at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California the Australian National University in Canberra, able to identify its presence and its dominant role.
Just a few years ago, the reigning scientific wisdom held that the force of gravity across the universe was constantly acting to attract the galaxies of the universe, and that gravity would continually slow the expansion of the universe or even reverse, leading one to a massive implosion, “the Big Crunch.” But as scientists obtained precise data from distant supernovae to show how fast various parts of the universe were moving, the teams were astonished at what they found. Instead of collapsing or gradually slowing, the distant reaches of the visible universe were accelerating their expansion. The universe was expanding at an ever increasing rate, as if an unknown repulsive force was overwhelming gravity. Both teams initially believed that they had made an error, and spent significant time trying to find the mistake. But their analysis was correct. It was the model of the universe – the cosmic org chart, so to speak – that didn’t describe reality. Some strange force, dubbed “dark energy,” was changing everything.
Dark energy is not the only thing that has confounded our understanding of the cosmos. We also have to account for another influencer that is far more significant than visible matter, a mysterious mover and shaker scientists call “dark matter.” Dark matter refers to matter that we cannot see directly (it does not reflect enough light to be easily observed) but must be out there, based on the gravitational influence that it wields (unlike the anti-gravity aspects of dark energy, dark matter contributes gravitational pull). In fact, it is far more abundant that the matter we can see. Its dominating effects are evident from observations of the rotation of galaxies, the motion of cluster of galaxies, and the bending of light from distant objects. Its nature is still a matter of investigation, but it also overwhelms visible matter in its gravitational influence.
So scientists now understand that the major influencers in the universe include matter in the form of atoms, dark matter, and dark energy. And how do these compare? Based on detailed measurements, scientists have concluded that the best model to describe the macroscopic behavior of the universe is one with about 4 percent atoms, 23 percent dark matter, and 73 percent dark energy. We’re used to thinking of a universe made of visible matter such as atoms, but that’s only a tiny fraction of what is out there. The visible universe–the cosmic org chart, so to speak–describes only 4% of reality. Most of the influence shaping the motion of galaxies and the expansion of the cosmos comes from the unseen, from either dark energy or dark matter.
The cosmic org chart is broken because the things that may actually drive motion and behavior at a large scale may not be visible to us. There are forces and substances unseen to us that actually dominate reality.
Given that, dear reader, how wise is it to conclude that what we can see and feel in our tiny corner of the universe is sufficient for us to think we understand reality? There is so much we don’t understand, but much that we can learn by tapping into the unseen power of God through the Spirit of God. Latter-day Saints have long been taught that the things of the Spirit are real, and that through the medium of the Spirit, significant information can be conveyed to us from God. To rule out the possibility of such sources of information seems foolhardy, especially when science is now faced with the certainty that the unseen actually dominates physical reality. Interestingly, long before science began realizing that unseen matter and energy dominates the universe, Joseph Smith taught that spirit is actually physically real matter. In Doctrine and Covenants 131, he said:
7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;
8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.
We don’t know what kind of matter spirit is, but won’t it be exciting to find out? One day, these things will be known to us. Meanwhile, we must seek the influence of the Spirit and the real information that the Holy Ghost can convey into our hearts and minds, giving us sure knowledge of things not yet seen. There is more than meets the eye to life and the universe, and it’s time we start facing that reality.