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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Dark, Perhaps Forever

Mario Livio tossed his car keys in the air.They rose ever more slowly, paused, shining, at the top of their arc, and then in accordance with everything our Galilean ape brains have ever learned to expect, crashed back down into his hand.

That was the whole problem, explained Dr. Livio, a theorist at the Space Telescope Science Institute here on the Johns Hopkins campus.

A decade ago, astronomers discovered that what is true for your car keys is not true for the galaxies. Having been impelled apart by the force of the Big Bang, the galaxies, in defiance of cosmic gravity, are picking up speed on a dash toward eternity. If they were keys, they would be shooting for the ceiling.

“That is how shocking this was,” Dr. Livio said.

It is still shocking. Although cosmologists have adopted a cute name, dark energy, for whatever is driving this apparently antigravitational behavior on the part of the universe, nobody claims to understand why it is happening, or its implications for the future of the universe and of the life within it, despite thousands of learned papers, scores of conferences and millions of dollars’ worth of telescope time. It has led some cosmologists to the verge of abandoning their fondest dream: a theory that can account for the universe and everything about it in a single breath.

“The discovery of dark energy has greatly changed how we think about the laws of nature,” said Edward Witten, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

This fall, NASA and the Department of Energy plan to invite proposals for a $600 million satellite mission devoted to dark energy. But some scientists fear that might not be enough. When astronomers and physicists gathered at the Space Telescope Science Institute recently to take stock of the revolution, their despair of getting to the bottom of the dark energy mystery anytime soon, if ever, was palpable, even as they anticipate a flood of new data from the sky in coming years. When it came time for one physicist to discuss new ideas about dark energy, he showed a blank screen.

The institute’s director, Matt Mountain, said that dark energy had given this generation of astronomers a rare opportunity, and he admonished them to use it wisely.

“We are placing a large bet,” Dr. Mountain said, “using our credibility as collateral, that we as a community know what we are doing.”

But many stressed that it was going to be a long march with no clear end in sight. Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University told them, “In spite of the fact that you are liable to spend the rest of your lives measuring stuff that won’t tell us what we want to know, you should keep doing it.”

Scuffling in the Dark

Through myriad techniques and observations, cosmologists have recently arrived, after decades of strife, at a robust but dark consensus regarding a cosmos in which stars and galaxies, as well as the humans who gawk at them, amount to barely more than a disputatious froth. It was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang. By weight it is 4 percent atoms and 22 percent so-called dark matter of unknown identity — perhaps elementary particles that will be discovered at the Large Hadron Collider starting up outside Geneva this year. That leaves 74 percent for the weight of whatever began causing the cosmos to accelerate about five billion years ago.

As far as astronomers can tell, there is no relation between dark matter, the particles, and dark energy other than the name, but you never know. Some physicists are even willing to burn down their old sainted Einstein and revise his theory of gravity, general relativity, to make the cosmic discrepancies go away. There is in fact a simple explanation for the dark energy, Dr. Witten pointed out, one whose tangled history goes all the way back to Einstein, but it is also the most troubling.

“Dark energy has the somewhat unusual property that it was embarrassing before it was discovered,” he said.

In 1917, Einstein invented a fudge factor known as the cosmological constant, a sort of cosmic repulsion to balance gravity and keep the universe in balance. He abandoned his constant when the universe was discovered to be expanding, but quantum physics resurrected it by showing that empty space should be foaming with energy that had the properties of Einstein’s constant.

Alas, all attempts to calculate the amount of this energy come up with an unrealistically huge number, enough energy to blow away the contents of the cosmos like leaves in a storm before stars or galaxies could form. Nothing could live there.

Dr. Witten and other physicists used to think this conundrum “would somehow go away.” Something was missing in physicists’ understanding of physics, the logic went. The constant was really zero for deep reasons that, when revealed, would lead physicists closer to an understanding of what they call “the vacuum,” that is to say, the structure of reality.

“It seems now that the answer is not really zero,” Dr. Witten said.

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