the empty universe -- 12/31/18 End of Year Selections: Space

 Today's encore selection -- from The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. If all of the protons, neu­trons, and electrons, the very things we think of as most important, were completely removed, the total mass/energy of the universe would be only slightly diminished. And 100 billion years from now, the universe will be a largely empty place:

"In the 1990s, two groups of astronomers, one led by Saul Perlmutter at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the other led by Brian Schmidt at the Australian National University, set out to determine the deceleration -- and hence the total mass/energy -- of the universe by mea­suring the recession speeds of type la supernovae. ...

"The groups concluded that the expansion of the universe slowed down for the first 7 billion years after the initial outward burst, much like a car slowing down as it approaches a highway tollbooth. This was as expected. But the data revealed that, like a driver who hits the gas pedal after gliding through the EZ-Pass lane, the expansion of the universe has been accelerating ever since. The expansion rate of space 7 billion years ATB was less than the expansion rate 8 billion years ATB, which was less than the expansion rate 9 billion years ATB, and so on, all of which are less than the expansion rate today. The expected deceleration of spatial expansion has turned out to be an unexpected acceleration.

"But how could this be? Well, the answer provides the corroborating second opinion regarding the missing 70 percent of mass/energy that physicists had been seeking.

Random upsurges of repulsive energy in what theorists call the "inflaton field" may have resulted in the sudden exponential expansion of space, producing a huge universe like ours.

"If you cast your mind back to 1917 and Einstein's introduction of a cosmological constant, you have enough information to suggest how it might be that the universe is accelerating. Ordinary matter and energy give rise to ordinary attractive gravity, which slows spatial expansion. But as the universe expands and things get increasingly spread out, this cos­mic gravitational pull, while still acting to slow the expansion, gets weaker. And this sets us up for the new and unexpected twist. If the uni­verse should have a cosmological constant -- and if its magnitude should have just the right, small value -- up until about 7 billion years ATB its gravitational repulsion would have been overwhelmed by the usual gravitational attraction of ordinary matter, yielding a net slowing of expan­sion, in keeping with the data. But then, as ordinary matter spread out and its gravitational pull diminished, the repulsive push of the cosmological constant (whose strength does not change as matter spreads out) would have gradually gained the upper hand, and the era of deceler­ated spatial expansion would have given way to a new era of accelerated expansion.

"In the late 1990s, such reasoning and an in-depth analysis of the data led both the Perlmutter group and the Schmidt group to suggest that Ein­stein had not been wrong some eight decades earlier when he introduced a cosmological constant into the gravitational equations. The universe, they suggested, does have a cosmological constant. Its magnitude is not what Einstein proposed, since he was chasing a static universe in which gravitational attraction and repulsion matched precisely, and these researchers found that for billions of years repulsion has dominated. But that detail notwithstanding, should the discovery of these groups continue to hold up under the close scrutiny and follow-up studies now under way, Einstein will have once again seen through to a fundamental feature of the universe, one that this time took more than eighty years to be con­firmed experimentally.

"The recession speed of a supernova depends on the difference between the gravitational pull of ordinary matter and the gravitational push of the 'dark energy' supplied by the cosmological constant. Taking the amount of matter, both visible and dark, to be about 30 percent of the critical density, the supernova researchers concluded that the accelerated expansion they had observed required an outward push of a cosmological constant whose dark energy contributes about 70 percent of the critical density.

"This is a remarkable number. If it's correct, then not only does ordinary matter -- protons, neutrons, electrons -- constitute a paltry 5 percent of the mass/energy of the universe, and not only does some currently unidentified form of dark matter constitute at least five times that amount, but also the majority of the mass/energy in the universe is contributed by a totally different and rather mysterious form of dark energy that is spread through­out space. If these ideas are right, they dramatically extend the Coperni­can revolution: not only are we not the center of the universe, but the stuff of which we're made is like flotsam on the cosmic ocean. If protons, neu­trons, and electrons had been left out of the grand design, the total mass/energy of the universe would hardly have been diminished.

"But there is a second, equally important reason why 70 percent is a remarkable number. A cosmological constant that contributes 70 percent of the critical density would, together with the 30 percent coming from ordinary matter and dark matter, bring the total mass/energy of the uni­verse right up to the full 100 percent predicted by inflationary cosmology! Thus, the outward push demonstrated by the supernova data can be explained by just the right amount of dark energy to account for the unseen 70 percent of the universe that inflationary cosmologists had been scratching their heads over. The supernova measurements and inflation­ary cosmology are wonderfully complementary. They confirm each other. Each provides a corroborating second opinion for the other. ...

"Early on, the energy of the uni­verse was carried by the inflation field, which was perched away from its minimum energy state. Because of its negative pressure, the inflaton field drove an enormous burst of inflationary expansion. Then, some 10-35 seconds later, as the inflaton field slid down its potential energy bowl, the burst of expansion drew to a close and the inflaton released its pent-up energy to the production of ordinary matter and radiation. For many bil­lions of years, these familiar constituents of the universe exerted an ordi­nary attractive gravitational pull that slowed the spatial expansion. But as the universe grew and thinned out, the gravitational pull diminished. About 7 billion years ago, ordinary gravitational attraction became weak enough for the gravitational repulsion of the universe's cosmological con­stant to become dominant, and since then the rate of spatial expansion has been continually increasing.

"About 100 billion years from now, all but the closest of galaxies will be dragged away by the swelling space at faster-than-light speed and so would be impossible for us to see, regardless of the power of telescopes used. If these ideas are right, then in the far future the universe will be a vast, empty, and lonely place."



Brian Greene


The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality


Vintage Books


Copyright 2004 by Brian R. Greene


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