Time Keeps on Slippin', Slippin', Slippin'

Ideas more or less related to teaching and learning physics at Luther College.

One truism for me that I suspect holds some bit of general truth across the broad, beautiful swath of humanity is that the longer I live the more history compresses. When we landed on the moon I was four years old. I feel like I should remember the event but I do not. I am not certain that we watched it. I have very distinct memories of individual events far less momentous from just a year or two later. Of course those memories could be partially or wholly fabricated or could be misplaced in time. I am pretty certain, however, that at the time the 1950s seemed like the very distant past. Now Brahe, Kepler and Galileo don’t seem as distant to me as the scenes from Happy Days did then. Thus, the need to be repeatedly warned not to project too much of our social norms onto peoples of another place and time.

Somehow related to this evolving sense of the flow of time, wherever it may slip, is my need to get students to come to terms with the very real notion that the ideas in their physics and astronomy textbooks got there as a result of real struggles by real people. As clear and obvious as the textbook physics may appear, it almost assuredly was a dirty mess at the time. As a college we are beginning discussions about our lab courses and what we want students to gain from them. For me, part of the answer lies hidden here. The key to most good days in the teaching lab is that students must design some simple experiment, decide how to analyze the resulting data and then must make some sort of claim about what they know or don’t know. If they get just a bit of a hint of how uncomfortable it is to make a claim about something of limited significance, if they doubt what they have done, if they question the technique and the analysis, if they worry that they might have made any of a dozen missteps, then we have made progress.

I have these thoughts as I read the latest report from the LUX dark matter experiment looking for evidence of WIMPS. There is still no detection of individual dark matter particles here, although the DAMA project has found some strong evidence for signals that they interpret as evidence for dark matter particles interacting with their detectors. The story of our attempt to understand dark matter is long one with Fritz Zwicky in 1933 measuring velocities of galaxies in clusters that were so high the clusters should have flown apart and Vera Rubin and her team in 1978 showing that the velocities of stars in individual galaxies should do the same for galaxies. At that point, the hunt for dark matter particles was on; it has produced confusing and contradictory results intermittently since.

For me the story of this epic search is a personal one. I know many of the people involved in the LUX experiment. Some of them I “borrowed” tools from when their lab was down the hall in graduate school and we shared the same graduate advisor. That was longer ago now than the 1950s were when they seemed so distant. I suppose that better than dwelling on these would be to fly like an eagle to the sea.

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