This Is Why Dark Energy Must Exist, Despite Recent Reports To The Contrary
“We do not do science in a vacuum, completely ignoring all the other pieces of evidence that our scientific foundation builds upon. We use the information we have and know about the Universe to draw the best, most robust conclusions we have. It is not important that your data meet a certain arbitrary standard on its own, but rather that your data can demonstrate which conclusions are inescapable given our Universe as it actually is.
Our Universe contains matter, is at least close to spatially flat, and has supernovae that allow us to determine how it’s expanding. When we put that picture together, a dark energy-dominated Universe is inescapable. Just remember to look at the whole picture, or you might miss out on how amazing it truly is.”
20 years ago, the supernova data came back with an extraordinary surprise: it looked like the Universe wasn’t just expanding, but that the expansion rate was increasing as we head further into the future. While there were many dark energy skeptics to start, the increased flow of improved data from many lines of evidence that all kept pointing to the same conclusion has led to a cosmological consensus: dark energy dominates the Universe today. Last week, a story made waves, as Subir Sarkar and collaborators published their second paper (the first was in 2016) claiming that the evidence from supernovae is not good enough to support the existence of dark energy, and our cosmological foundation for it is extraordinarily shaky.
This is not true. This is demonstrably untrue. And the claim shows a deliberate unwillingness to pay attention to the rest of the field. Find out why dark energy must exist, despite recent reports to the contrary.
This Is Why There Are No Alternatives To The Big Bang
“For more than 50 years, no alternative has been able to deliver on all four counts. No alternative can even deliver the Cosmic Microwave Background as we see it today. It isn’t for lack of trying or a lack of good ideas; it’s because this is what the data indicates. Scientists don’t believe in the Big Bang; they conclude it based on the full suite of observations. The last adherents to the ancient, discredited alternatives are at last dying away. The Big Bang is no longer a revolutionary endpoint of the scientific enterprise; it’s the solid foundation we build upon. It’s predictive successes have been overwhelming, and no alternative has yet stepped up to the challenge of matching its scientific accuracy in describing the Universe.”
The last adherents to alternative theories to the Big Bang are at last dying away. Advocates of tired light, steady-state, or plasma cosmologies have ceased arising among the scientific ranks for one reason: these ideas cannot even explain the Cosmic Microwave Background observations, much less the full suite of the four major cornerstones of the Big Bang. When all we had were Hubble’s data and the evidence for the expanding Universe, it was a great idea to explore all the conceivable alternatives. Now that the data has come in, the alternatives have been scientifically falsified, and the Big Bang is the foundation we use as the base for our future theorizing.
This may disappoint some, but for the scientifically-minded among us, it’s a monument to the success of a fantastic theory. Here’s the scientific story of why no alternatives remain.
Ask Ethan: When Were Dark Matter And Dark Energy Created?
“Today [normal matter] is only 4.9% while Dark Matter and Dark Energy takes the rest. Where did they come from?”
The Universe, as we know it, got its start in earnest when the hot Big Bang began. Space was filled with all the particles and antiparticles of the Standard Model, up at tremendous energies, while the Universe then expanded, cooled, and gave rise to all we know. But when did dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95% of the Universe we know today, come into the picture? Was the Universe born with these components of energy? Or were they created at a later time? We have some inklings that dark matter was likely created in the extremely early stages, but may not have been present from the Universe’s birth. On the other hand, all theoretical signs point to dark energy always existing, but observationally, we have about 4 billion years where we cannot measure its presence at all.
Where do dark matter and dark energy come from? It’s a great cosmic mystery, but we do know something about it. Find out where we are today!
The Simplest Solution To The Expanding Universe’s Biggest Controversy
“This is how dark energy was first discovered, and our best methods of the cosmic distance ladder give us an expansion rate of 73.2 km/s/Mpc, with an uncertainty of less than 3%.
If there’s one error at any stage of this process, it propagates to all higher rungs. We can be pretty confident that we’ve measured the Earth-Sun distance correctly, but parallax measurements are currently being revised by the Gaia mission, with substantial uncertainties. Cepheids may have additional variables in them, skewing the results. And type Ia supernovae have recently been shown to vary by quite a bit — perhaps 5% — from what was previously thought. The possibility that there is an error is the most terrifying possibility to many scientists who work on the cosmic distance ladder.”
We live in an expanding Universe that’s 13.8 billion years old, full of two trillion galaxies, containing dark energy, dark matter, normal matter and radiation. For decades, we’ve been refining and better-understanding this cosmic picture, with one of the goals of modern astrophysics to measure the rate of expansion. Right around the year 2000, results from the Hubble key project, the scientific reason the Hubble space telescope was built, indicated that the expansion rate was 72 km/s/Mpc, with an uncertainty of around 10%. Now, we have multiple independent ways to measure that rate to even greater precision, but the problem is that two different groups no longer agree. One claims a rate of 73.2 km/s/Mpc, and the other claims a rate of 67.4 km/s/Mpc. The claimed uncertainties are small, and do not overlap.
Is this a crisis for cosmology? Or is one group simply mistaken due to an unidentified error? Is this a loose OPERA cable all over again? Here’s the big question keeping scientists up at night.
The Universe Is Disappearing, And There’s Nothing We Can Do To Stop It
“Of the estimated two trillion galaxies in our Universe today, only about 3% of them are still reachable from the point of view of the Milky Way. This also means that 97% of the galaxies in our observable Universe are already out of humanity’s reach, owing to the accelerated expansion of the Universe caused by dark energy. Every galaxy beyond our local group, as time goes on, is destined for that same fate.
Unless we develop the capacity for intergalactic travel and head out to other galaxy groups and clusters, humanity will forever be stuck in our local group. As time goes on, our ability to even send or receive signals to what lies beyond in the great cosmic ocean will fade from view. The accelerated expansion of the Universe is relentless, and the gravity we have isn’t strong enough to overcome it. The Universe is disappearing, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
One of the most profound discoveries about the Universe occurred just 20 years ago. Not only was the Universe expanding, with distant galaxies getting farther and farther away as time goes on, but that expansion was accelerating. Take a look at any galaxy that isn’t gravitationally bound to our own, and if you watch it as time goes on, it will appear to move away from us faster and faster. At some point, when it gets to about 15 billion light years away from us, it will appear to recede faster than the speed of light. When it reaches that point, it means that anything that occurs within it won’t be viewable by us, and that if we left immediately, even at the speed of light, we’d never reach it.
Moreover, with every second that goes by, approximately 20,000 new stars cross that threshold into unreachability. The Universe is disappearing, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Ask Ethan: Is Spacetime Really A Fabric?
“I’d like somebody to finally acknowledge and admit that showing balls on a bed sheet doesn’t cut it as a picture of reality.”
Okay, I admit it: visualizing General Relativity as balls on a bedsheet doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one, if this is what gravity is supposed to be, what pulls the balls “down” onto the bedsheet? For another, if space is three dimensional, why are we talking about a 2D “fabric” of space? And for another, why do these lines curve away from the mass, rather than towards it?
It’s true: this visualization of General Relativity is highly flawed. But, believe it or not, all visualizations of General Relativity inherently have similar flaws. The reason is that space itself is not an observable thing! In Einstein’s theory, General Relativity provides the link between the matter and energy in the Universe, which determines the geometric curvature of spacetime, and how the rest of the matter and energy in the Universe moves in response to that. In this Universe, we can only measure matter and energy, not space itself. We can visualize it how we like, but all visualizations are inherently flawed.
Come get the story of how to make as much sense as possible out of the Universe we actually have.
What Was It Like When We First Made Protons And Neutrons?
“But at this stage, the biggest new thing that occurs is that particles are no longer individual-and-free on all scales. Instead, for the first time, the Universe has created a stable, bound state of multiple particles. A proton is two up and one down quark, bound by gluons, while a neutron is one up and two down quarks, bound by gluons. Only because we created more matter than antimatter do we have a Universe that has protons and neutrons left over; only because the Higgs gave rest mass to the fundamental particles do we get these bound, atomic nuclei.
Owing to the nature of the strong force, and the tremendous binding energy that occurs in these stretched-spring-like interactions between the quarks, the masses of the proton and neutron are some 100 times heavier than the quarks that make them up. The Higgs gave mass to the Universe, but confinement is what gives us 99% of our mass. Without protons and neutrons, our Universe would never be the same.”
The very early Universe looks nothing like our Universe today. Not only are there no stars or galaxies, but there weren’t any atoms or atomic nuclei. If we go back early enough, there weren’t even protons or neutrons, but free quarks (and antiquarks) instead. This era lasted for just 10-to-20 microseconds in the early Universe, but the story of how we went from a quark-gluon plasma to a Universe filled with protons and neutrons is a fascinating true part of our shared cosmic history.
Here’s what the Universe was like when we first made protons and neutrons, along with a list of all the things we needed to line up to lead to the Universe we recognize today!
There Was No Big Bang Singularity
“Every time you see a diagram, an article, or a story talking about the “big bang singularity” or any sort of big bang/singularity existing before inflation, know that you’re dealing with an outdated method of thinking. The idea of a Big Bang singularity went out the window as soon as we realized we had a different state — that of cosmic inflation — preceding and setting up the early, hot-and-dense state of the Big Bang. There may have been a singularity at the very beginning of space and time, with inflation arising after that, but there’s no guarantee. In science, there are the things we can test, measure, predict, and confirm or refute, like an inflationary state giving rise to a hot Big Bang. Everything else? It’s nothing more than speculation.”
The Universe, as we observe it today, is expanding and cooling, with the overall density dropping as the volume of space increases. If we ran the clock backwards, however, instead of forwards, things would appear to contract, become denser, and grow hotter. If you go back farther and farther in time, you’d come to an epoch before there were stars and galaxies; before neutral atoms could stably form; before atomic nuclei could remain; etc. You’d go all the way back to hotter and denser states, eventually compressing all the matter and energy in the Universe into a single point: a singularity. This was the ultimate beginning of everything according to the original Big Bang: the birth of time and space.
But this picture is almost 40 years out of date, and known to be wrong. Why’s that? Come learn how we know that there was no Big Bang singularity.
Ask Ethan: How Large Is The Entire, Unobservable Universe?
“We know the size of the Observable Universe since we know the age of the Universe (at least since the phase change) and we know that light radiates. […] My question is, I guess, why doesn’t the math involved in making the CMB and other predictions, in effect, tell us the size of the Universe? We know how hot it was and how cool it is now. Does scale not affect these calculations?”
Our Universe today, to the best of our knowledge, has endured for 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. But we can see farther than 13.8 billion light years, all because the Universe is expanding. Based the matter and energy present within it, we can determine that the observable Universe is 46.1 billion light years in radius from our perspective, a phenomenal accomplishment of modern science. But what about the unobservable part? What about the parts of the Universe that go beyond where we can see? Can we say anything sensible about how large that is?
We can, but only if we make certain assumptions. Come find out what we know (and think) past the limits of what we can see on this week’s Ask Ethan!
What Was It Like When The Universe Was At Its Hottest?
“At the inception of the hot Big Bang, the Universe reaches its hottest, densest state, and is filled with matter, antimatter, and radiation. The imperfections in the Universe — nearly perfectly uniform but with inhomogeneities of 1-part-in-30,000 — tell us how hot it could have gotten, and also provide the seeds from which the large-scale structure of the Universe will grow. Immediately, the Universe begins expanding and cooling, becoming less hot and less dense, and making it more difficult to create anything requiring a large or energy: E = mc2 means that creating a massive particle requires at least enough energy.
Over time, the expanding and cooling Universe will drive an enormous number of changes. But for one brief moment, everything was symmetric, and as energetic as possible. Somehow, over time, these initial conditions created the entire Universe.”
As soon as the Universe was filled with matter, antimatter, and radiation in the hot, dense state known as the Big Bang, it begins to expand and cool. For one brief moment, the Universe reached its maximum temperature and density, and had enough energy to spontaneously create anything at all that Einstein’s energy-mass equivalence would allow. But this state not only wouldn’t last, but it also was never arbitrarily or infinitely hot! There’s a limit to how energetic the Universe could have ever been, and we’ve determined it’s at least 1000 times smaller than the Planck scale. This is still trillions of times more energetic than anything the LHC ever created.
What was it like when the Universe was the hottest its ever been? Come find out on What-Was-It-Like-Whensday! (See what I did there?)