The last time I wrote a post was in February, ages ago in this fast-paced world. Since then, a lot of things have happened. I just flew back from the April Meeting of the American Physical Society in California, where I presented our most recent result from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III: the creation of the largest-ever 3D map of the distant universe. Thanks to the power sockets kindly provided by United on this particular flight, I can actually spend my time doing something useful while in this metal tube — attempt to write a marginally interesting post.
Anyway, my recent results were about the Lyman-alpha forest, a completely new technique that my colleagues and I got to work for the first time. It means a lot to me, mostly because there was a great deal of skepticism in the community on whether this technique would ever work, and given that I spent the past two years in the trenches trying to make it happen, I’m very happy. You can read more about it here. Fun fact: the media attention surrounding this announcement caused my name to appear on Fox News, a somewhat bizarre occurence for a European-style liberal like me.
What I want to tell you more about today is dark energy, which is a problem that is relevant both for my Lyman-alpha work as well as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) science that I discussed in this post. To put it mildly: dark energy is one big embarassement for modern physics. So, what is it?
First, one important clarification: dark energy is not dark matter. Dark matter is a substance that is omnipresent in our universe and essentially behaves as a cold, invisible dust that collapses under its own gravity. The observational evidence for dark matter is overwhelming, but there are also many good theoretical ideas about what dark matter might be. Physicists have embarked on a long program to establish a “theory of everything,” or at least a ”theory of many things.” We have unified electrodynamics and the weak interactions of particles — and the strong force can be self-consistently added — but how we combine these three forces with gravity is still an unsolved problem. There are many proposals on how to do it: supersymmetry, string theories, quantum loop gravity, etc. The beauty of all these proposals is that that, in addition to having observational signatures at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), they naturally explain dark matter. Most of these theories have at least one stable, weakly-interacting particle that could act as dark matter. The picture hasn’t quite clicked together yet, but this will indeed happen in the next couple of years, as more results come from the LHC.
Dark energy, on the other hand, doesn’t have such beautiful connections to fundamental physics. Nobody has the slightest idea of what if could be and how it could fit into the bigger picture. So what do we know?
In the late 1990s, observations of the dimming of distant supernovae showed that the universe is undergoing a phase of accelerated expansion. In other words, the universe is expanding faster and faster. This is very counterintuitive: if you throw a ball upwards, it keeps slowing down until it reaches its maximum height and then it falls down. The universe does something similar: After the initial kick, which we call the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe went slower and slower. But, some 7 billion years ago, the universe started to accelerate. It’s like throwing a ball in the air and watching it do what it’s supposed to do for a while before it suddenly changes its mind and zooms off to the skies!
After the initial discovery of dark energy through distant supernovae, the evidence grew stronger and stronger and now we see it in many different measurements of the universe: the Lyman-alpha forest measurements that I mentioned earlier, as well as measurements from the Dark Energy Survey and LSST will all constrain the behavior of dark energy. The amazing thing is that we can describe this accelerated expansion of the universe by putting an extra term in the equations that describes the evolution of the universe — the so-called cosmological constant. At the moment, all observations are consistent with adding this one simple number to our equations. But this number has nothing to do with the physics that we know; it is of a wrong order of magnitude and shouldn’t be there to start with. So we all measure like wackos and hope that we will detect some small deviation away from this simple solution. This would indicate that dark energy is more complicated, somewhat dynamical, and thus, give us a handle on understanding it. But it might turn out that it is just that — a cosmological constant with no connection to anything else. In the latter case we are stuck for the foreseable future hoping that someone will eventually be lucky enough to make an observation or theoretical insight that will bring everything together.