Scientists Can’t Agree On The Expanding Universe
“The question of how quickly the Universe is expanding is one that has troubled astronomers and astrophysicists since we first expansion was occurring at all. It’s an incredible achievement that multiple, independent methods yield answers that are consistent to within 10%, but they don’t agree with each other, and that’s troubling.
If there’s an error in parallax, Cepheids, or supernovae, the expansion rate may truly be on the low end: 67 km/s/Mpc. If so, the Universe will fall into line when we identify our mistake. But if the Cosmic Microwave Background group is mistaken, and the expansion rate is closer to 73 km/s/Mpc, it foretells a crisis in modern cosmology. The Universe cannot have the dark matter density and initial fluctuations 73 km/s/Mpc would imply.
Either one team has made an unidentified mistake, or our conception of the Universe needs a revolution. I’m betting on the former.”
The Universe is expanding: the observations overwhelmingly support that. It’s consistent with Einstein’s General Relativity; it work with the framework of the Big Bang; it allows us to quantify and predict the ultimate fate of our Universe.
But how fast, then, is the Universe expanding?
Scientists can’t agree, because there are three different techniques you can use to measure it. Two agree; one doesn’t.
So what gives? This is the controversy driving astrophysicists nuts at the moment. Come learn what it’s all about, along with my hunch as to what the resolution will be!
Who Really Discovered The Expanding Universe?
“Recently, what was known for generations as “Hubble’s Law” has now been renamed the Hubble-Lemaître law. But the point shouldn’t be to give credit to individuals who’ve been dead for generations, but rather for everyone to understand how we know the rules that govern the Universe, and what they are. I, for one, would be just as happy to drop all the names from all the physical laws out there, and simply to refer to them as what they are: the redshift-distance relation. It wasn’t the work of just one or two people that led to this breakthrough in discovering the expanding Universe, but of all the scientists I named here and many others as well. At the end of the day, it’s our fundamental knowledge of how the Universe works that matters, and that’s the ultimate legacy of scientific research. Everything else is just a testament to the all-too-human foible of vainly grasping at glory.”
In science, we have a tendency to name theories, laws, equations, or discoveries after the individual who made the greatest contribution towards its development. For generations, we credited Edwin Hubble for discovering the expanding Universe, as his contributions in the 1920s were absolutely tremendous. However, history has not only revealed that Georges
discovered the very law we had named after Hubble two years prior, but that many other people made essential contributions to that realization. The expanding Universe didn’t come about solely because of Hubble’s discoveries, and perhaps we can do better than crediting just a single person.
Here are a slew of advances that led to and supported the expanding Universe, showing that history and science relies on contributions far richer than that of a lone, genius scientist.
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.
Surprise! The Hubble Constant Changes Over Time
“If astronomers were more careful about their words, they would have called H the Hubble parameter, rather than the Hubble constant, since it changes over time. But for generations, the only distances we could measure were close enough that H appeared to be constant, and we’ve never updated this. Instead, we have to be careful to note that H is a function of time, and only today — where we call it H0 — is it a constant. In reality, the Hubble parameter changes over time, and it’s only a constant everywhere in space. Yet if we lived far enough in the future, we’d see that H stops changing entirely. As careful as we can be to make the distinction between what’s actually constant and what changes now, in the far future, dark energy ensures there will be no difference at all.”
The farther away you look in space, the more redshifted the light from the object you’re viewing appears. This implies that the Universe is expanding, and the rate of expansion, known as the Hubble constant, is something we’ve strived to measure for a very long time. While there’s a minor controversy over just what that expansion rate is today, whether it’s 67 or 73 km/s/Mpc, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the expansion rate has changed over time. That means that the Hubble constant isn’t actually a constant at all! So why do we call it that? Because we’re evaluating how the Universe is expanding today. It’s constant everywhere in space, but has actually dropped. Interestingly enough, it will now asymptote to a finite, unchanging value. Many billions of years in the future, it will truly become a constant.
The fact that the energy density has changed over time means that the Hubble expansion rate has changed, too, and that the Hubble constant actually changes over time! Come find out how.
Ask Ethan: How Many Galaxies Have Already Disappeared From Our Perspective?
“So how many earth observable galaxies have dropped out of sight? That is, how many galaxies (with the highest redshift) have disappeared from our point of view?”
When we look out at the distant reaches of space, there are some 2 trillion galaxies observable within our Universe. But our Universe is expanding, the expansion is accelerating, and light can only travel at the speed of light. Does that mean that galaxies are dropping out of sight?
There are two ways to look at this: from the point of view of not being able to see galaxies that we can presently see, and from the point of view of whether we can see the light those galaxies are emitting today, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang? If we take the first definition, not only is the answer “zero,” but there will be trillions more galaxies revealed to us over time. But if we take the second, we find that most of the galaxies we can see today are already gone.
How many galaxies have already disappeared from our perspective? The cosmic implications should motivate us to get out there and explore while there’s still some good Universe left to go and see!
How Come Cosmic Inflation Doesn’t Break The Speed Of Light?
“In an inflationary Universe, any two particles, beyond a tiny fraction of a second, will see the other one recede from them at speeds appearing to be faster-than-light. But the reason for this isn’t because the particles themselves are moving, but rather because the space between them is expanding. Once the particles are no longer at the same location in both space and time, they can start to experience the general relativistic effects of an expanding Universe, which — during inflation — quickly dominates the special relativistic effects of their individual motions. It’s only when we forget about general relativity and the expansion of space, and instead attribute the entirety of a distant particle’s motion to special relativity, that we trick ourselves into believing it travels faster-than-light. The Universe itself, however, is not static. Realizing that is easy. Understanding how that works is the hard part.”
It’s true that nothing can move faster than the cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, and that no two particles can move faster than light relative to one another. So how, then, do you explain the fact that during inflation, two particles that begin a subatomic distance away from one another are, after just a tiny fraction of a second, are then billions of light years apart? The answer is because special relativity only applies, strictly, to particles that occupy the same location as one another in both space and time. If they’re separated, then the Universe is under no obligation to be static, and space is free to expand and/or contract. You cannot figure your apparent motion with special relativity alone, but need to factor in the effects of general relativity as well. And that’s where things get really weird.
If you can understand it, however, the notion of how objects appear to recede faster than light suddenly starts to make sense. Come learn how inflation doesn’t break the speed of light after all!
New Dark Matter Physics Could Solve The Expanding Universe Controversy
“If either photons, neutrinos, or some new type of dark radiation (that interacts with dark matter but not any of the normal particles) has a non-zero cross-section with dark matter, it could bias measurements of the Hubble rate to an artificially low value, but only for one type of measurement: the kind that you get from measuring these leftover relics. If interactions between dark matter and radiation are real, they might not only explain this cosmic controversy, but could be our first hint of how dark matter might directly interact with other particles. If we’re lucky, it could even give us a clue to how to finally see dark matter directly.”
One of the biggest controversies in physics today is over the expanding Universe. Despite attempts to measure the Hubble rate for nearly 100 years, we still don’t know exactly how fast the Universe expands. Two independent classes of methods, from the cosmic distance ladder and the Big Bang’s leftover relic, give two very precise and incompatible results: 73 km/s/Mpc and 67 km/s/Mpc, respectively. There’s always the possibility that one class of methods gives a biased answer, and we simply haven’t uncovered the bias. But it’s also possible that new physics is responsible, that both teams are right, and that the discrepancy is a hint of the next great leap forward in our understanding of the fundamental properties of the Universe itself.
One exciting possibility is that dark matter has a new interaction with radiation: either photons, neutrinos, or a new type of ‘dark radiation.’ Come learn more about it today!