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!
Why Cosmology’s Expanding Universe Controversy Is An Even Bigger Problem Than You Realize
“The question of how quickly the Universe is expanding is one that has troubled astronomers and astrophysicists since we first realized that cosmic expansion was a necessity. While it’s incredibly impressive that two completely independent methods yield answers that are close to within less than 10%, the fact that they don’t agree with each other is troubling.
If the distance ladder group is in error, and the expansion rate is truly on the low end and near 67 km/s/Mpc, the Universe could fall into line. But if the cosmic microwave background group is mistaken, and the expansion rate is closer to 73 km/s/Mpc, we just may have a crisis in modern cosmology.
The Universe cannot have the dark matter density and initial fluctuations that such a value would imply. Until this puzzle is resolved, we must be open to the possibility that a cosmic revolution may be on the horizon.”
Ever since we first learned that the Universe was expanding, scientists have worked hard to measure just how fast that expansion rate is. From that, combined with what makes up the Universe, we can learn how old the Universe is and what it was like in the past, as well as what it’s fate will be in the future. Yet the two groups that make independent measurements of that rate, from the cosmic microwave background and the cosmic distance ladder, have gotten inconsistent results. If the distance ladder team has made a mistake, everything will be fine with cosmology. But if that team is right and the microwave background team is wrong, there should be a crisis coming.
Why is that? Come find out why the biggest controversy in modern cosmology might be an even bigger problem than almost everyone realizes!
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!
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!
Scientists Still Don’t Know How Fast The Universe Is Expanding
“The uncertainties on these two methods are both pretty low, but are also mutually incompatible. If the Universe has less matter and more dark energy than we presently think, the numbers on the ‘leftover relic’ method could increase to line up with the higher values. If there are errors at any stage in our distance measurements, whether from parallax, calibrations, supernova evolution, or Cepheid distances, the ‘distance ladder’ method could be artificially high. There’s also the possibility, favored by many, that the true value lies somewhere in between.”
How quickly is the fabric of space expanding? That depends on how we ask the Universe. If we look at things like the leftover glow from the Big Bang or the large-scale clustering of galaxies, we get a consistent value of 67 km/s/Mpc. But if we look at individual galaxies through a variety of methods, we get a different consistent value: 74 km/s/Mpc. The uncertainties on each method are small and do not overlap, and a potential third way of measuring this (merging neutron stars) have problems and biases all their own. A generation ago, we argued whether the Hubble constant was 50 or 100; the answer turned out to be 70. Now, we argue over whether it’s 67 or 74… or, as a few people propose, that it’s again some value in between the two.
Scientists still don’t know how fast the Universe is expanding. Here’s what the controversy is all about.
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.