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Editorial columns

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The more we learn, the less we grasp

There are discoveries that make our accumulated knowledge look almost pitifully small because they add so greatly to the sum of things we don’t know and don’t understand.

For a mere $900 million, we have added greatly to the sum of human ignorance. The European Space Agency’s Planck probe had found that the universe is 80 million years older than we had thought, and that it is actually 13.81 billion years old.

Since 2009, the Planck has studied such esoteric phenomena as “light fossils,” the remains of primordial galaxies.

The big bang, the standard theory of how the universe began, posits that a subatomic particle suddenly exploded with massive force, followed by an “inflation” that sprayed the void with the matter that became our universe – all in an infinitesimal fraction of a second.

In a coincidence – if the results of costly and painstaking research by thousands of scientists can be called a coincidence – the recalculated age of the universe follows the finding of the Higgs boson, a particle believed to be responsible for creating mass.

Two of the leading theorists of the post-big-bang inflation, Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton University and Andreas Albrecht of the University of California, Davis, are rather hoping that there isn’t more to their theory of inflation.

Carried a step further, the theory of inflation would allow for other universes, perhaps an infinite number of universes. While this should make science fiction writers happy, it’s not exactly a bold breakthrough for scientists. Said George Efstathiou of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge: “There’s less stuff we don’t understand by a tiny amount.”