This Is Why Dark Energy Is The Biggest Unsolved Problem In The Universe
“The true fact of the matter is that, observationally, dark energy is behaving as though it’s a form of energy inherent to the fabric of space itself. WFIRST, NASA’s flagship astrophysics mission of the 2020s (after James Webb), should allow us to reduce the measured constraints on w down to the 1-or-2% level. If it still looks indistinguishable from a cosmological constant (with w = -1) then, we’ll have no choice but to reckon with the quantum vacuum itself.
Why does empty space have the properties that it does? Why is the zero-point energy of the fabric of the Universe a positive, non-zero value? And why does dark energy have the behavior we observe it to have, rather than any other?
There are an infinite number of models we can cook up to describe what we see, but the simplest model — of a non-zero cosmological constant — requires no additions or modifications to match the data. Until we make progress on understanding the quantum vacuum itself, dark energy will remain the biggest unsolved puzzle in all of modern theoretical physics.”
Since 1998, astronomers have known that the Universe isn’t just expanding, but that the more distant a galaxy gets from us, the faster it appears to recede away from us. The reason for this isn’t because of motion, but rather because there’s more than just matter and radiation in the Universe; there’s also a form of energy that appears to be inherent to space itself: dark energy.
While it may be theoretically fashionable to concoct new fields, modifications to gravity, or other forms of new physics, it’s unnecessary. What we really need to do is understand the quantum vacuum, and we don’t. Here’s the story so far.
This Is Why Einstein’s Greatest Blunder Really Was A Tremendous Mistake
“But there’s no retconning history; Einstein wasn’t right after all. While our Universe might actually have a non-zero cosmological constant, it isn’t there to stabilize our Universe. Rather, our Universe isn’t stable at all; it’s expanding from an initially hot, dense, and uniform state into the cold, sparse, and galaxy-rich cosmos we see today.
Einstein missed all of that because he insisted on a static Universe, and invented the cosmological constant to achieve that goal. Take it away, and you get a Universe that’s very much like the one we have today. The cosmological constant that affects our Universe serves to break the balance between the expansion and the other forms of matter-and-energy; it causes distant galaxies to accelerate away from us, pushing the Universe apart. Had Einstein predicted that, it would have been mind-boggling. Instead, he forced the equations to fit his (incorrect) assumptions, and missed the expanding Universe.”
When Einstein first set forth his General theory of Relativity, it included a term that no one had ever heard of before: a cosmological constant. Einstein had realized that a static Universe, the one he thought he lived in, was unstable. Gravitation would cause matter to collapse, and so something had to counteract that. His solution was to concoct a cosmological constant, something that he called his “greatest blunder” after the expanding Universe was confirmed.
Does the late-1990s discovery of dark energy, which might be a cosmological constant after all, mean that Einstein was actually right? Not at all. Come find out why today.
The Counterintuitive Reason Why Dark Energy Makes The Universe Accelerate
“In a nutshell, a new form of energy can affect the Universe’s expansion rate in a new way. It all depends on how the energy density changes over time. While matter and radiation get less dense as the Universe expands, space is still space, and still has the same energy density everywhere. The only thing that’s changed is our automatic assumption that we made: that energy ought to be zero. Well, the accelerating Universe tells us it isn’t zero. The big challenge facing astrophysicists now is to figure out why it has the value that it does. On that front, dark energy is still the biggest mystery in the Universe.”
There are lots of explanations out there for why the Universe’s expansion is accelerating. Some people point towards the negative pressure of a cosmological constant and talk about how this causes space to fly apart. Others call it a “fifth force” and imply that it’s a new fundamental relation that functions as some sort of anti-gravity. Neither of those explanations are correct, though, and they both complicate a much simpler (and more correct!) truth: that the Universe’s expansion rate is simply determined by all the different types of matter and energy within it. Dark energy is just another type of energy, but it’s different in a very particular way from the normal matter, dark matter, neutrinos, and radiation that we know.
Dark energy makes the Universe accelerate because of how it evolves and changes differently from everything else we know of over time. Come find out how!
Aliens In The Multiverse? Here’s Why Dark Energy Doesn’t Tell You Anything
“It’s important to recognize that there are a wide variety of possible values that dark energy could have, including significantly larger values, that would still lead to a Universe very much like our own. Until we understand where these values come from, and what makes one set of values more likely than another, it’s grossly unfair to claim that we won the cosmic lottery in having a Universe with the values ours possesses. Unless you know the rules that govern the game you’re playing, you have no idea how likely or unlikely the one result you see actually was.”
There are a series of interesting results that have just emerged from the EAGLE collaboration, which has been simulating the Universe to learn what types of stars and galaxies form within it. They varied the value of dark energy in it tremendously, and found that even if you increased the amount by five, ten, or fifty times as much, you’d still form plenty of stars and galaxies: enough to give you chances at life like we have here. This surprised them, since they assumed the value of dark energy we have is finely-tuned to allow life. But it appears that things may not be as finely-tuned as we had thought! The simulation results are interesting, but this doesn’t really tell you anything about aliens in the Multiverse, since we have no idea what causes dark energy to have the values that it does.
Until we know the rules that govern this, we can’t really say what dark energy tells us about aliens in Universes other than our own. Here’s why.
Is there really a cosmological constant? Or is dark energy changing with time?
“The Kilo Degree Survey (KiDS) has gathered and analyzed weak lensing data from about 15 million distant galaxies. While their measurements are not sensitive to the expansion of the universe, they are sensitive to the density of dark energy, which affects the way light travels from the galaxies towards us. […]
The members of the KiDS collaboration have tried out which changes to the cosmological standard model work best to ease the tension in the data. Intriguingly, it turns out that ahead of all explanations, the one that works best has the cosmological constant changing with time. The change is such that the effects of accelerated expansion are becoming more pronounced, not less.”
We normally assume that the fundamental constants of the Universe are actually constant, but they don’t have to be that way. They could vary in space, in time, or with the energy density of the Universe, in principle. Before believing in such an extraordinary claim, however, you’d need some remarkable evidence. It’s arguable that exactly that sort of evidence is emerging: from the tensions in the expansion rate of the Universe. If you measure the expansion rate from the cosmic microwave background, you get a value for the expansion rate of 67 km/s/Mpc. But if you measure it from the traditional cosmic distance ladder, you get a value closer to 74. This tension could be a systematic error in the measurement, but it could also point towards the value of dark energy changing with time. Interestingly, a large survey independent of the Universe’s expansion but dependent on weak lensing shows an increasing dark energy might be the answer.
It could all be systematic errors, of course, but if the effect is real, it could revolutionize how we understand the Universe. Sabine Hossenfelder explains.